“Ask a Priest: Did the Devil Know Who Jesus Was?”

Q: Ever since I have started reading the Bible again there are plenty of questions that keep popping up. For example, did Satan know who Jesus was when he was tempting him? What exactly did Jesus mean in Matthew 7:6? John the Baptist came to prepare the way for Jesus and was involved in baptizing Jesus; and he didn’t want to do so, saying he was not worthy. Why then did John send out his disciples to find out if Jesus was who he thought he was? Was John confused? And until Jesus was told, did he not know that John the Baptist was beheaded? I know due to time constraints I can’t keep coming back to you with all my questions. So I was hoping you could point me in the right direction. -G.D.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is great that you are reading the Bible again. As you quickly learned, it can be mysterious. Let me try a few brief answers:

First, it is possible the devil wasn’t 100% sure Jesus was God. Notice the devil’s use of the conditional: “If you are the Son of God …”

Second, Matthew 7:6 (“Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine …”) could mean that we shouldn’t keep presenting the faith or things of the faith to someone who is stubborn and resistant to the message. That might only antagonize and further alienate them. The Holy Spirit has a time and place for souls to be open to the Gospel, and it helps to try to detect when the right timing comes along.

Third, John the Baptist might have asked that question for the sake of his skeptical disciples. But perhaps John himself had difficulties. This shouldn’t shock us — faith is always being tested. It is understandable, after all, that John wondered how it was that he ended up in prison, after having the privilege of pointing out the Lamb of God to the world. Also, John said that the Christ would “clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). John might have been expecting a Messiah who would have overcome evil through force, rather than through suffering and the cross.

Fourth, part of the mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus showed his divinity or his human nature in more pronounced ways at various times. He would ask, “Who touched me?” yet at other times he could read peoples’ hearts. So it is possible Jesus as true man didn’t know about John’s death. Of course, in his divine nature Jesus would have known it, but as he wished to fully become man, in his human nature he had to “inquire for himself about what one in the human condition can learn only from experience” (CCC 472).

These answers aren’t exhaustive, of course, and there can be other explanations. That is part of the richness of Scripture.

It might be helpful simply to get a good Catholic Bible and read the footnotes. There are numerous commentaries available on the Internet too. A particularly good companion to the Gospels is Father John Bartunek’s The Better Part.

The key thing is to keep reading — and living — the Gospel message.

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