Sometimes the hardest theological question to answer is “So what?” Jesus is the serpent slayer. So how should a Christian live in light of that thrilling storyline? I’ll suggest six ways.
1. Don’t imitate the poisonous snake.
The serpent’s offspring imitate the serpent.
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. 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)
According to Jesus, you imitate the poisonous serpent when you (1) murder, (2) reject the truth, and (3) lie. For example, (1) killing unborn babies imitates the devouring dragon;1 (2) embracing the prosperity gospel imitates the deceptive snake;2 (3) and slandering people by gossiping about them imitates the poisonous serpent.3
The snake and his offspring deceive people with words. God’s people must not imitate the poisonous serpent by how they use their tongues.
The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:6–10)
You imitate the poisonous serpent when you curse a fellow human being, who bears God’s image. “The whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:14–15).
Christians can sin by imitating the serpent. The apostle Peter illustrates two ways.
A Christian can sin by deceiving others to believe what is false. Peter sinned that way when he separated himself from Gentile Christians. When he behaved out of step with the gospel, he misled other Jewish Christians, including Barnabas (Gal. 2). We imitate the serpent when we lead others to sin (cf. Matt. 18:6).
A Christian can sin by thinking he or she is better than God in some way—smarter, wiser, more powerful, more righteous. Peter sinned that way when he rebuked Jesus for prophesying about his death and resurrection. Jesus replied to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23).
2. Beware of the serpent as the deceiving snake and devouring dragon.
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Pet. 5:8)
Here God describes Satan not as the deceiving snake or devouring dragon but as a roaring lion, which conveys basically the same idea as a devouring dragon. Satan is not your friend. He does not have your best interest in mind. Satan is hunting you. You are Satan’s prey. He sneaks around to find people like you to devour.
So beware! Be on guard. Expect him to attack and to keep attacking. Don’t let your guard down. And don’t flirt with the serpent by entertaining his ear-tickling lies.4
For example, the deceiving snake might tempt you to indulge in pornography. When the serpent tempts you, he doesn’t say something like this:
I’ve run a cost-benefit analysis for you regarding whether you should indulge in pornography. The benefit is that you may feel some immediate pleasure, a little buzz. But the cost is at least sevenfold: (1) It may send you to hell. (2) It does not glorify God with your body. (3) It is a poisonous, fleeting pleasure. (4) It foolishly wastes your life. (5) It betrays your spouse and children. (6) It ruins your mind and conscience. (7) It participates in sex slavery. What do you think is the wiser choice?5
Satan never tempts people that way. He tempts with lies. He tempts you to think that you would be happier without God, without submitting to God as your gracious master.
The imagery of snakes and dragons should shock you out of spiritual slumber so that you see the world as it really is.6 Satan really is a deceiving snake and a devouring dragon.7 He is scheming to deceive and destroy you with false teaching. He wants you to believe what is false.
So beware of the deceiving snake and devouring dragon. “It does not do,” J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us in The Hobbit, “to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”8
3. Fight the serpent as the deceiving snake and devouring dragon.
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (2 Cor. 10:3–6)
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil [NIV: “do not give the devil a foothold”]. (Eph. 4:26–27)
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints. (Eph. 6:10–18)
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. (1 Pet. 5:8–9)
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)
The serpent is real, and he wants to deceive and devour you. So beware, be alert, wear defensive armor. But that’s not all. Don’t simply be defensive. Go on the offensive. Fight. Counterattack.
God enables his people to tread on serpents (Ps. 91:13; Luke 10:19; Acts 28:3–4).9 How? We don’t fight the serpent with the same sort of weapons that militaries use to fight battles. We fight the serpent with spiritual weapons such as the ones in Ephesians 6:10–18. We fight the serpent by believing and speaking the truth. By upholding righteousness. By preaching the gospel to ourselves and those around us. By unwaveringly trusting God. By living like what we are—delivered from serving the serpent. By understanding and applying God’s word. By praying at all times in the Spirit for ourselves and our brothers and sisters.
We fight the serpent by contending for the faith against grace-perverting immorality (Jude 3-4). By excommunicating false teachers from the church because we recognize them for what they are—intruding snakes. By treasuring what is true and rejecting what is false. By loving what God loves and hating what God hates. By serving as an essential part of our local church’s body. By doing good works in our communities by God’s grace and in Jesus’s name. By refusing to do evil even if serpentine authorities command it—following the honorable example of the Hebrew midwives and Moses’s parents (Ex. 1; Heb.11:23).
You won’t properly fight the serpent if you are flirting with him. You won’t properly fight the serpent if you think he makes some compelling arguments about what is true and what is good. You must be convinced to the core of your being that the serpent is undiluted evil. The serpent is a thief, a murderer, a liar. Jesus spoke the truth about the serpent: “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). The serpent is the ultimate traitor—he committed treason against the King of the universe. And he is doing everything he can to convince you to commit treason, too.
You won’t fight against the serpent the right way unless you feel about him the right way. How do you feel about Voldemort when you read Harry Potter? How do you feel about Sauron when you read The Lord of the Rings? How do you feel about the white witch when you read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? How do you feel about Apollyon when you read The Pilgrim’s Progress? That’s how you should feel about the serpent in real life. You should feel disgust at his poison, outrage at his injustice, and a deep longing for justice to prevail.10
We fight the serpent by believing and speaking the truth.
4. Exult in the serpent slayer.
How should you feel when you think about what Jesus the serpent slayer has already done to the dragon, and about what the serpent slayer will finally do to the dragon? You should feel elated! You should fall on your knees to worship the ultimate knight in shining armor, the ultimate dragon slayer.
It’s epic when the good guys courageously defeat Sauron or Voldemort. But that’s just a shadow compared with the greatest defeat of all time. Jesus slays the dragon! If that doesn’t make you rejoice, what will? Exult in the serpent slayer.11
5. Enjoy good serpent-slaying stories as echoes of the greatest story.
Good books and films that portray epic stories typically echo the greatest story. Sometimes the antagonist is an actual serpent, but usually the villain is a symbolic serpent that a hero defeats. Learn to enjoy such stories as echoes of the greatest story.
Good stories don’t flirt with evil and confuse you about whether good is bad or bad is good. For example, a book or movie that makes your emotions root for a person to commit adultery is sinful. Good stories should make you love what God loves and hate what God hates. The greatest stories do that best.
Perhaps consider creating an epic story yourself that leads others to worship the ultimate serpent slayer. One day you may write a letter similar to one C. S. Lewis wrote to a concerned mother of a son named Laurence:
Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.12
6. Trust the serpent slayer.
You cannot defeat the serpent on your own. But God is greater than the serpent: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
There may be times when the serpent is persecuting you or your brothers and sisters in Christ. You may feel afraid, desperate, depressed. That is when you must remember the whole storyline. You know how this story ends! Yes, difficult and tragic events will continue to occur. But you know that the serpent slayer has already decisively defeated the serpent and that at the end he will finally and completely crush the serpent. Don’t doubt the serpent slayer’s plan, valor, power, or goodness. Trust him. He always does what’s right, and in the end we will jubilantly rejoice that Jesus has finally conquered the serpent.
- Cf. Scott Klusendorf, The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009).
- Cf. David W. Jones and Russell S. Woodbridge, Health, Wealth and Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011). See also the documentary American Gospel: Christ Alone (Transition Studios, 2018).
- Cf. Matthew C. Mitchell, Resisting Gossip: Winning the War of the Wagging Tongue (Fort Washington, PA: CLC, 2013).
- For what that might look like in modern times, see C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters: With Screwtape Proposes a Toast (New York: Touchstone, 1996). Cf. Andrew David Naselli, “Diabolical Ventriloquism: A 1-Sentence Summary of Each of Screwtape’s Letters,” Thoughts on Theology, July 25, 2013, http://andynaselli.com/diabolical-ventriloquism-a-1-sentence-summary-of-each -of-screwtapes-letters. See also Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1943). Lewis wisely begins his preface to The Screwtape Letters by cautioning readers: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight” (Screwtape Letters, ix). See John R. Gilhooly, 40 Questions about Angels, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare, 40 Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2018).
- Cf. Andrew David Naselli, “Seven Reasons You Should Not Indulge in Pornography,” Themelios 41, no. 3 (2016): 473–83.
- Cf. G. K. Beale, “The Purpose of Symbolism in the Book of Revelation,” Calvin Theological Journal 41, no. 1 (2006): 53–66.
- Cf. Tony Reinke, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 81–89
- . J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: or, There and Back Again (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 199. >Here’s the fuller context of that pithy advice: The dwarves were still passing the cup from hand to hand and talking delightedly of the recovery of their treasure, when suddenly a vast rumbling woke in the mountain underneath as if it was an old volcano that had made up its mind to start eruptions once again. The door behind them was pulled nearly to, and blocked from closing with a stone, but up the long tunnel came the dreadful echoes, from far down in the depths, of a bellowing and a trampling that made the ground beneath them tremble. Then the dwarves forgot their joy and their confident boasts of a moment before and cowered down in fright. Smaug was still to be reckoned with. It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him. (199)
- Mark 16:18a (“they will pick up serpents with their hands”) seems to support that principle, but it’s probably not Scripture, since the earliest and best manuscripts do not include it. For details, see the text-critical note on Mark 16:9–20 in the NET Bible. Cf. R. Alan Streett, “Snake Handling and Mark 16:18: Primitive Christianity or Indigenous American Religion?,” Criswell Theological Review 8, no. 1 (2010): 77–90.
- For a captivating children’s book that creatively supports the first three responses (i.e., don’t imitate the poisonous serpent; beware of Satan as the deceiving snake and devouring dragon; and fight Satan as the deceiving snake and devouring dragon), see Marty Machowski, Dragon Seed (Greensboro, NC: New Growth, 2017). It targets ages 11–14, but my wife and I along with our younger children loved it when I read it aloud to our family. We also enjoyed a more recent dragon-slaying story appropriate for children: Douglas Wilson, Andrew and the Firedrake (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2019).
- For a children’s book (ages 5–12) that exults in the “snake crusher” while concisely summarizing the Bible’s storyline, see Kevin DeYoung, The Biggest Story: How the Snake Crusher Brings Us Back to the Garden (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).
- C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper, 3 vols. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 3:603.
This article is adapted from The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer by Andy Naselli.
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