Good Christians Are Satan's Easiest Targets
But The Pilgrim's Progress teaches us how to brawl with Apollyon.
This article was adapted from episode two of The Way to Glory.
How do you think about the devil? Or, perhaps, do you think about him at all?
As much as we attempt to explain away or ignore Satan, he’s a person. And he’s seeking to destroy those who identify with Christ.
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan depicts the unyielding attacks Satan launches on those who follow Jesus through the character of Apollyon. Derek Thomas, senior minister of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., and professor of systematic and practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, joined us to talk about Apollyon on the page and Satan in our everyday lives.
Christian encounters Apollyon shortly after leaving the hospitable mistresses of the Palace Beautiful who fed and armed him for his journey. He travels down into the Valley of Humiliation, where Apollyon, a monster described as “hideous to behold,” awaits.
He was clothed with scales like a fish (and they are his pride); he had wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke; and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion.
Apollyon, a biblical name for Satan that is translated “Destroyer,” advances on Christian with possessive indignation.
Apollyon: By this I perceive thou art one of my subjects, for all that country is mine, and I am the prince and god of it. How is it then that thou hast run away from thy King? Were it not that I hope thou mayest do me more service, I would strike thee now at one blow to the ground.
Christian: I was born indeed in your dominions, but your service was hard, and your wages such as a man could not live on, “for the wages of sin is death”; therefore when I was come to years, I did as other considerate persons do—look out, if perhaps I might mend myself.
Apollyon refuses to “lightly lose his subjects,” and he launches a vicious attack. As Christian attempts to stand fast in his pursuit of the Celestial City, Apollyon strikes—armed with accusation, shame, and despair.
But when Apollyon hurls condemnation, Christian parries with self-awareness and strength.
All this is true, and much more which thou hast left out; but the Prince whom I serve and honor is merciful, and ready to forgive.
Apollyon’s—Satan’s—accusations expose an underlying belief that we can curry favor with God, earn his acceptance, based on our performance. We act as though by accomplishing more and being better, God will be pleased with us, and when we fail, we believe he is disappointed.
We fancy ourselves on a mission for God as we carry out our tasks. Shouldn’t we be rewarded then—shouldn’t this be when things go well? So very often, though, this is when life becomes brutally hard, and we find ourselves in a Valley of Humiliation staring down Apollyon. In the face of attack, Christian’s response models the need to preach the gospel to ourselves.
“Every day,” Thomas emphasizes. “I need to do it first thing in the morning and remind myself—I’ve got nothing in my hands. I don't bring my devotional time. I don't bring how many chapters of the Bible I've read. I don't bring my success in evangelism. I simply cling to the cross.”
Our best defenses do not lie in obsessing over daily habits, word choices, or even spiritual disciplines, deeply important as they may be. Rather, we render ourselves more difficult targets for Apollyon when we lean our full weight on the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that when Satan comes close, we do not crumble beneath the weight of his accusations.
The devil knows our weaknesses, and he is more than willing to exploit them. Eager to take advantage of the knowledge he has about us, Satan accuses us continually—making our character seem questionable and our obedience seem half-hearted. His arsenal of tools and opportunities grow every day.
The Crosshairs of Satan
When his verbal assaults fail to faze Christian, Apollyon launches a physical attack. Christian’s head, hands, and feet are injured in the process. It’s a battle with consequences of eternal significance, and Apollyon nearly overpowers Christian.
He had almost pressed him to death, so that Christian began to despair of life: but as God would have it, while Apollyon was fetching of his last blow, thereby to make a full end of this good man, Christian nimbly stretched out his hand for his sword, and caught it, saying, “Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy! When I fall I shall arise;” and with that gave him a deadly thrust, which made him give back, as one that had received his mortal wound.
“Paul says in Ephesians 6 to put on the whole armor of God, so that in the evil day you may be able to stand,” says Thomas. “There are days or seasons in our life when we seem to be in the crosshairs of Satan.”
Christian must put on the full armor of God and fight a battle that he could never win in his own strength. “The breastplate that protects your heart,” says Thomas, “is the righteousness of Christ. God made him to be sin for us who knew no sin that we might be reckoned the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21). All our faith, all our confidence, all our assurance is based on his righteousness and his obedience, not mine.” Christian’s performance could never be enough to defeat Apollyon.
Interestingly, in The Pilgrim's Progress Apollyon isn't on every page. He only appears at this particular point in the story. However, there is evil on every page. Temptations abound on every page. As Thomas says, “But there are times in our lives when we must confront him directly. And that's when it is important that we put on the gospel armor.”
While Christian physically put on armor, we do likewise by following the other example he sets—knowing and reciting Scripture, effectively ridding himself of Apollyon’s presence.
“Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” And with that Apollyon spread forth his dragon’s wings, and sped him away
Satan, like Apollyon, is relentless. He charges with force and fury and has no care for the well-being of the one he seeks to possess and destroy. With equal intensity, we must prepare to fight. We must store up Scripture, readying ourselves for the day that our character and identity will be under siege.
And with Satan’s assault, a long season—weeks or even months—may come, bringing with it a keen awareness of condemnation as our conscience betrays us, our spirit flags, zeal dissipates, and joy slips away. But the Words of Life in Scripture, though they feel dry as dust in our mouths, will never return void, even when mumbled from parched and weary lips.
When Apollyon finally flees, Christian bursts into song.
Great Beelzebub, the captain of this fiend,
Designed my ruin; therefore to this end
He sent him harnessed out: and he with rage
That hellish was, did fiercely me engage:
But blessed Michael helped me, and I
By dint of sword did quickly make him fly.
Therefore to him let me give lasting praise,
And thank and bless his holy name always
The Christian life calls us to a remarkable faith—a faith that relies solely on the goodness of God for our salvation and never presents our own merits as justification. Attack may come as we press on, but the sacrifice of Christ, presence of the Spirit, and love of the Father give us a way to fight. And when God gives us the victory through his Word and in his strength, we sing.