Satan the Legalist
I wonder if Satan’s office door has this sign hanging on it:
RED DRAGON AND ASSOCIATES LEGAL TEAM
"Bringing The Hammer of Justice Since Before The Earth Was Created”
Who is the Red Dragon?
Revelation 12 opens with a scary scene. Read it and you’ll see a trembling young woman in labor, simultaneously emanating peace and agony. Towering above her you’ll see a grotesque and enraged red dragon, crouched like an alley cat over an unsuspecting mouse. The witness to this scene, a marooned pastor named John, counts seven heads and ten horns on the dragon. He watches the beast sweep his tail across the heavens and pull a third of the stars down. And then the beast waits, licking his seven chops, to devour the newborn baby as soon as he is delivered.
In this scene, John sees something that happens outside of time. It happens on the heavenly level, and plays out repeatedly through the whole story from Creation to consummation. The grotesque red dragon receives many names in the course of the story: Destroyer, Accuser, Lucifer, The Prince of the World, The Devil, Satan.
Why Would God Create Such a Thing?
The world asks why about him. Why would God create him? Why would he rebel? Why would a third of the angels serving the courts of God’s perfect realm leave their post to join him? And why is he so mad about this child?
We’ve met him before. In his Heavenly Court, God boasts about his humble servant, Job. Immediately, Satan (This Hebrew name also means “accuser” or “prosecutor”) steps in. "Job isn’t as good as you think he is, God. Let me expose his injustice. Let me expose his weakness. He’ll turn on you. He only loves you for the stuff you give him."
This is the role of the satan, the Accuser, the Prosecutor. Scripture hints that God empowered his primary worship leader, the beautiful angel named Lucifer, as the keeper of God’s JUSTICE. After all, what better means of worshipping the Creator than to uphold and enforce his righteousness? Before the earth was created, this protection of justice amounted exclusively to worship. Afterward, the role highlighted illegal activity, and brought it to justice - even if that meant laying a trap for would-be criminals.
Lucifer's "Fall Like Lighting"
Somewhere in the process, God revealed his plan to the angels. Every detail of the plan was about the Glory of the Son – the Father and the Spirit’s greatest joy. The plan was something like this: the first two people, Adam and Eve, would choose their own way. Rather than destroy them, God would immediately begin restoring them. He would promise to them offspring who would defeat the their enemies. He would cover their nakedness. He would design a system of sacrifice that whispered, for thousands of years, of something greater. And then, at just the right time, he would send his Son to earth, born as a baby to a pure and powerful young lady, and his Son would take all the self-righteous wickedness upon himself and through death and resurrection, turn it into glory.
Here’s my theory (important: this is a conjecture based on my understanding of the text, not a description of what the Bible actually says!). This plan infuriated Lucifer. The Prosecutor’s entire world is about justice. It is about exposing rebellion and crushing it. It is about maintaining perfect worship for God – and now, that very God he has served so diligently, tells him a plan that turns justice on its head! Imagine the disgust. Imagine your first great case of injustice, your first opportunity to serve your King and prove your worth to him, and he looks at you and says: You’ll be prosecuting me for this crime. To Lucifer’s ears, that’s not justice… it’s cheating.
The rebellion is swift. Jesus tells his disciples that “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” For a third of the angels, it’s an easy sell. God has turned his back on justice.
The Rebellious Legalist
Perhaps you’ve heard pastors, teachers, or wise Christians tell you that “Satan is a legalist.” It is the most intimate truth about Satan. When he rejected God's plan, he entered a hell of his own design: at once tortured by his own fixed choice to rebel against God, and constantly trying to expose God’s crooked plan to redeem with no “true” justice (from his perspective). And so John the Seer sees the woman giving birth to this promised Son and shutters at the Great Dragon breathing fire and fury, waiting to destroy him. Murder is in the air. A narrow escape and a violent war ensue.
Closing the Case
A different John, the elderly apostle who had walked with Jesus in his teenage years and now had led and served and built the church for his whole life, wrote a series of letters to the worldwide church. In the letter we call 1 John, he encourages us to “test the spirits.” The ultimate test, the way to determine if an angel is in obedience or rebellion to God, comes in the form of a yes or no question: Has Jesus Christ come in the flesh? In other words, was the incarnation real? Was the promised baby boy really born? The dragon may not have destroyed the boy, but he has spent the centuries convincing people the boy was not the Christ of God.
What does it matter to you that God has done this? The Biblical story reminds us from every twist that this was the only way. Look at the whole, you'll see its claim that this is the reason for all suffering, all evil, and all good. Jesus would come in the flesh, take all the brokenness of history past, present, and future upon himself in a horrific death, and would rise again in the flesh, victorious. Therein is freedom from the great, angry, rebellious legalist.
As terrifying as the Red Dragon appears in that scene, his defeat is notably non-eventful. With a word, the Son of Man, the Lamb who was slain, the risen Lion of Judah, brings he and his cohorts to the very judgment they took upon themselves to enforce. Only those who were “too good” for God’s mercy now face his justice. Satan felt it his privilege to uphold the goodness of God, and was furious when God announced that privileged belonged to the Triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit alone. If you admit the Christ came in the flesh, you are admitting that he alone is your goodness. In the words of the great theologian, Shirley Guthrie, “heaven is for sinners, hell is for good people.”