And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
I have always read these verses as kind of Jesus’s “tears in rain” speech. You know, from Bladerunner:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
It’s epic, it’s poetic, it sounds great, and Jesus just recently “turned His face to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), knowing His “time to die” drew near1.
But, clearly, I wasn’t thinking too hard. I wanted it to be Jesus talking about the original fall of Satan. There’s so little information in the Bible about the Accuser, the Adversary, the Devil, the chief demon, whom we know as Satan, that I want to pick up on any scrap I can and spin a whole mythology out of it.
This English translation sure makes that easy.
But it also makes little sense in context. It’s a weird interjection between the seventy-two returning with joy and Jesus’s admonishment about the source of our joy.
The best I can say about that interpretation in context is that perhaps Jesus is using it to establish His own authority to grant power “to tread on serpents and scorpions”. Something like, “I was there at the first Fall, and I can and will see it through to the last.”
There’s also the slight fact that many church fathers believed this one. A strong endorsement, and one we shouldn’t ignore. They offered a different motive, though: a warning against pride.
This warning makes a bit more sense. The seventy-two come back all puffed up after their victories. You can imagine them telling each other stories as they meet on the road before they got back to Jesus:
“Can you believe I just laid hands on him and he could walk? Lame; hands; walking. Boom!”
“Oh yeah? Well I cured three lepers at the same time by a well. Let me tell you how happy they were… not to mention the people who wanted to use the well!”
“Sweet! I met this cute little girl who had had a demon her whole life, and a single prayer made her whole.”
They’re excited, they’re feeling the power, they’re on top of the world, and the name of Jesus is, somehow, absent from their conversation except in the phrase, “I can’t wait to tell Jesus what we did!”
Can you hear the Tempter already in their words2?
So they get back and they’re talking over each other telling Jesus everything that happened. He already knows, of course, but their pride won’t let them be silent. They have to tell Him, and in telling Him, tell the rest. It’s a thirty-six-sided game of oneupmanship.
Jesus is pleased; of course He is pleased. He’s building an army! Not, you know, the army Simon the Zealot wants Him to build; not the army the entire Jewish world wants Him to build. The kind that could shake Rome to its foundations and release the Jews from their slavery to a foreign empire—again.
He’s building an army of love and compassion, teaching and healing, backed by the power of God Himself. And that army went out against the forces of darkness, and came back full of life and light.
But what He has right now is still just a bunch of overly eager recruits who just got their first taste of battle, and their first taste of victory. You can almost hear them: “Let’s go out again! Let’s crush Satan under our feet once and for all tomorrow, or the next day at the latest! Surely we can do it; did you see what we just did? And after that, we’ll take on Rome! Down with Caesar!”
So He reminds them, somewhat gently, of three things, as we return to the gospel of Luke.
First, He was there when Lucifer got too big for his britches (verse 18). When the Star of the Morning decided, “Hey, I could do this God job.” At which moment God cast him and all the angels who agreed with him out of heaven and onto the earth3. Pride, He seems to remind them from Proverbs 16:18, goes before destruction.
Second, the authority is His, not theirs (verse 19). “Guys4, I know it felt awesome to do all these works. Believe me, I know. I’ve done some works in my time. But the authority is not yours; it’s not even mine. All authority in heaven and on earth is derivative from the Father, who has granted it to me to give to whom I wish. Don’t forget that you are servants, not masters.”
And third, even if they master the pride thing, they’ve still misplaced the source of their joy (verse 20). It’s nice and all to cast out demons and heal the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry—but your joy is in heaven, or it ought to be, not down here on earth no matter how many good works you do.
So there’s some value and some believability to this idea that Jesus was indeed talking about having seen Satan’s fall from heaven, and using that as part of His discourse to these disciples.
But, to be honest, it kind of opens up a giant can of worms. I’m not saying it’s definitely untrue; when it comes to Biblical discussion of the metaphysics of heaven and hell, even the greatest theologians end up going on faith more often than not. And I’m just me, just barely peeking out above their shoulders. However, I think there’s a better explanation, one that makes a bit more sense in context (and, as it turns out, in Greek).
Ask yourself this question: Why did Jesus refer to Satan at this moment in time?
One possibility is the first one I gave above: Jesus has granted authority to the seventy-two, and they come back kind of amazed that it actually worked, and Jesus is offering His own status as having been “in the beginning with God” (John 1:1) as explanation for His authority to grant such power.
Or the second: it’s part of a warning against the natural, but very human, pride that comes with success.
Here’s one more, and it’s the one I prefer, I think: Jesus is affirming the work of the seventy-two.
They have gone out from Jesus and done mighty works of exorcism and healing (and presumably preaching, although they apparently don’t come back exulting about having spread the gospel of Jesus). But they have only seen the human side of things, the earthly side. Jesus has seen the heavenly side; as they have gone about His work, He’s been keeping an eye on them spiritually. And indeed, He says, their work has been effective, a series of real victories against the devil.
He wants them to know that they’re not simply healing wounds of the flesh, not simply driving out demons in His name, but fighting on the front lines of a war between good and evil, between love and ego, between God and not-God.
So He tells them: “While you were working, I was watching. And the works you did in my name were so powerful, so faithful, that Satan fell from his throne above the earth as quickly and as surely and with as much brilliance as lightning strikes down from heaven.”
The Greek seems to back up this interpretation. A more accurate, but less poetic, translation, might be, rather than, “I saw Satan fall…”, “I was seeing Satan falling…”. So we might paraphrase Jesus like this: “While you were going about my business, I was watching Satan fall. Each step you advanced, he fell further from his place as the prince of the power of the air. Every disease healed, every demon thrown out, was a blow to his power. Well done, all. Your victories are real, and lasting.”
I like this explanation because it fits into the larger story more neatly. Jesus’s ministry inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth. He was—is—the lead charge of the invasion force to return earth to its Garden of Eden state. This second foray (remember, the twelve went out previously, Luke 9:1–6) was not just a training exercise, though it was that. It was a victory for Jesus.
Jesus knows His ultimate victory is secure. He knows Satan’s fall is certain. He knows His followers will fight the good fight until He returns. And even though He knows that on the last day, He will defeat the beast and the false prophet and the amassed armies of darkness in an instant (Revelation 20:9–10), He knows there is the whole of history still to come. The ministry of the saints, their thousands of years (so far) of struggles and sufferings and losses and wins, will glorify Him far beyond the single crushing blow at the end of time.
So Jesus sees the big picture. He sees not just the current reality of Satan’s fall as the seventy-two go out to work, but He sees that their work is a part of the complete story of Christ’s victory over sin.
Telling these disciples that He was watching Satan fall connects them to this story. It draws them in. It teaches them—and us—that there is only one story, the glory of Jesus, and that they and we are part of it. Not just an incidental part. Not just bit players. Hear Him again, to you today:
“As you go out into the world to do my work, I will rejoice to see Satan fall a little further. You can’t miss it! It’s like watching lightning from heaven—his fall is sure and unmistakable, and as long as you’re on my side, hearing and sharing my word, you’re part of it.”
That’s why I like this third way. It makes you part of the story. It invites you in to the work of Jesus. It shows you the importance of our following Jesus on earth even though ultimate victory is His alone.
As you go about your life today, live in such a way that you can hear Jesus say, “I was watching Satan fall, like lightning from heaven.”
Don’t go any deeper here, by the way. The character who delivers these lines, Roy Batty, says elsewhere in the film that he’d rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. Obviously not a Christ figure. Of course, later, he drives a spike through his hand, so…. Anyway, Bladerunner is full of religious imagery, but I’m not trying to make any of those points. The verse just evoked this memory for me. ↩
Almost all of the previous and following quotations come from the gospel of Jerry, my historical fiction that fills in the gaps between verses, hopefully faithfully, sometimes tongue-in-cheek. ↩
Some day, we’ll take a close look at where all these stories come from; today, just check out Isaiah 14:12–14. ↩
I have no idea, and neither does anybody else, whether there were women among the seventy-two. There were certainly women among the disciples, and it seems to make some sense that there would be women among the seventy-two, especially because going out in pairs (maybe even married couples?) would provide some safety against the dangers that would have prevented women going out alone. But I don’t know. ↩