Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Last Temptations of Christ: Mark 15:22-32

Audio available here.

In 1988, a public firestorm erupted over Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of the novel The Last Temptation of Christ. The film was criticized by Christians all around the world and is still banned in some countries because of its controversial depiction of Jesus as a man who continually wrestled internally with the struggle of His own desires versus His Father’s will for Him. What the film was right about was that Jesus was fully human and therefore did experience temptation and struggle with His will and His Father’s, as we saw in the prayer in Gethsemane in Mark 14:36. However, the film did not convey that Jesus was also fully divine. Though He had a human nature, it was not a fallen human nature such as we have, wherein our instinctive desires are thoroughly saturated in selfishness, rebellion, and immorality. His human nature was not corrupted by the presence of sin as ours is – He was morally perfect in His thoughts, inclinations, motivations, as well as in His words and deeds. Now, I hate to spoil the plot of a good film, but this was not a good film; and anyway, its over 20 years old, so if you haven’t already seen it you probably won’t and I am not sure you should. So here’s the spoiler (close your ears if you want to). In the Scorsese film, the “last temptation” of Christ is one that involves a sexual union with Mary Magdalene and an escape from the cross, after which He would go on to live a “normal” life. But in reality, the last temptations of Christ struck at a far more intense and deep level than anything to which we as human beings can relate.

We do not need to drag Jesus through the gutter of human depravity in order to understand that He experienced temptation of severe intensity; we only have to go to our Bibles. We have record of these temptations from the time of His baptism until His death on the cross. The Bible tells us in Hebrews 4:15 that He was “tempted in all ways as we are yet without sin.” He met Satan face to face in the wilderness during the 40 days following His baptism and overcame a series of temptations there which pertained to physical desire, personal prestige, power, and wealth. Luke concludes his account of those wilderness temptations by saying “When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time.” We are not told specifically if or when that opportune time ever came, but it may be that here in Jesus final hours as He suffered in agony upon the cross, Satan found the opportune time to unleash one last barrage of temptation upon Him.

The soldiers who had tortured and ridiculed Jesus publicly on Pilate’s orders brought him to a place called Golgotha, which Mark translates for us as “The Place of a Skull.” We refer to this place as Calvary, though that name is never found in the Bible. It comes from a Latin rendering of Golgotha, calvus, meaning “scalp,” or “bald head”, akin to the idea of skull. It may have looked like a skull, as the site known today as Gordon’ Calvary in Jerusalem does; or it may have borne this name because it was a place of death. But this place of death has become for us who believe in Christ the place of life. The central tenet of the Christian faith is the Jesus Christ died for the sins of humanity on the cross. The Apostle Paul summarized his entire preaching mission in 1 Cor 2:2 by saying, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” Crucifixion is the most horrendous mode of execution known in human history. It is only out of sheer restraint that Mark gives this momentous event only three words: “They crucified Him.” All those who originally read these words would know of the horror and brutality encapsulated in this brief statement. A mere three hours after Pilate had ordered the execution, Jesus is nailed to His cross where He would die.

Mark tells us that that the charges against Jesus were written, “The King of the Jews.” It was customary for a condemned criminal to have their crimes written on a tablet and hung around their necks or affixed to their cross as they died. The charge against Jesus was meant to mock His claim to be the Messiah, to portray Him as a traitor against the authority of Rome, and to deter others from rebellion. Mark also tells us that Jesus died between two robbers who were crucified with Him on that day. That word robber has a wide range of meaning, but the first century Jewish historian Josephus uses it to describe insurrectionists. This may mean that these two criminals were part of the insurrection mentioned in connection with Barabbas earlier in the chapter. If so, this entire scene may have been a demonstration of Roman power warning everyone to abide by their rule, but we cannot know for sure what crimes they had committed.

There are several interesting parallels to the prophetic 22nd Psalm in this brief passage. That the soldiers gambled for his garments was foreshadowed in Psalm 22:18. The sarcastic shouts to come down from the cross echo the mockery of Psalm 22:8: “Commit yourself to the LORD; let Him deliver him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him.” Even the expression “wagging their heads,” finds a precise parallel in Psalm 22:7. There are other parallels with that Psalm found throughout the larger passage of Mark’s treatment of Jesus’ death, including the words spoken by Jesus in v34. It is as if David, who lived 1000 years earlier and never saw a crucifixion in his life, could foresee what His descendant, the Messianic Savior, would endure.

It is interesting to note that Mark devotes more attention to the mockery Jesus endured while He was on the cross than the physical suffering and agony He endured. The verb tenses Mark uses from vv29-32 indicate that the mockery and insults likely went on for some time. He was insulted by those by passing by, by the chief priests and scribes, and even by those who were dying with Him. In addition to the physical anguish of the cross, and underlying all of this verbal abuse, was a spiritual attack orchestrated by Satan himself to bring upon Jesus a final onslaught of temptation. Knowing full well that men will succumb to pressures in the face of death that would not ordinarily ensnare them in the prime of life, Satan found an opportune time to entrap the Son of God and thwart God’s plan of redemption. Let us consider what temptation Jesus endured in these final moments of His earthly life – The Last Temptations of Jesus.

I. Jesus Faced the Temptation to Deaden the Pain (v23)

In Proverbs 31, the words of an ancient king are preserved, sayings which he learned from his mother. His mother had warned him that wine and strong drink are not for kings, but should be offered to those who are perishing. There is a tradition which tells us that there were some women in Jerusalem who, inspired by the model of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31, made a habit of offering strong drink as a sort of narcotic to people who were dying in order to deaden their pain. We are not told here who offered Jesus the wine mixed with myrrh, but it unlikely that the soldiers who seemed to enjoy watching their victims suffer would have. It is not improbable then that the drink was offered by compassionate bystanders who wanted to help the victims of crucifixion. Though their intentions were noble, they were unknowingly presenting Jesus with a temptation. If only He could take the drug, the pain and suffering of the cross would be minimized. Perhaps He may even drink so much to just pass out and escape the torture rather than feeling every stroke of agony.

This is a temptation we can relate to. None of us wants to undergo surgery without anesthesia! When you are laying on an operating table, the most wonderful words to hear are, “Take a deep breath and count backwards from ten.” I have had surgery twice in my life, and I don’t think I got past 7 in the countdown. And then you wake up and it is all over. They put a blade you’re your flesh and did all kinds of stuff inside your body, and you didn’t know anything about it. Some of us by personal experience, or through our relationships with others, have seen how tempting it is to mask the pain of life’s hardships with drugs and alcohol. The most desperate circumstances can be endured with something to numb us to the painful realities. The businessman at the end of a stressful day may feel that a stiff drink will make it all better. The down-and-out person on the street may seek to escape for a moment of time in the artificial euphoria of heroin, crack, or crystal meth. But then they sober up and realize that the problems did not go away, and are often intensified. Thus the cycle of an addiction begins and enslaves that person. Some of us have been there, others haven’t. But all of us understand the appeal that a momentary offer of escape presents to us in the midst of suffering. Jesus knows that temptation as well. He faced it on the cross. In the midst of suffering no human being has ever known, Jesus was offered a drug to deaden the pain, but He refused it.

By refusing to take the drink, Jesus embraced the suffering of the cross in a conscious state and refused to immunize Himself against the pain. He would not drift into an intoxicated stupor wherein that pain would be minimized. The pain He experienced on the cross was two fold: He was experiencing the full outpouring of man’s hatred of God and the full outpouring of God’s wrath against sin. The sins of all mankind from the Garden of Eden until today, every sin ever committed by any person, all my sins and all your sins, were placed upon Him and punished with the righteous judgment of God. Here was a surgery being performed that would remove the cancerous tumor of human sin, and Jesus took it without anesthesia. He would remain in full possession of all His faculties of thinking and feeling during the entire ordeal.

If you recall, during the last supper, Jesus shared a cup of wine with His disciples as a symbol of His blood which would seal believers in the New Covenant. This is not the time or place to debate whether it was fermented or not, that’s not important here. What is important is that when He shared that cup, He said, “Truly I say to you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” And here, when He was offered to drink the fruit of the vine again, He abstained, keeping His promise. He refused to yield to the temptation to deaden the pain.

II. Jesus Faced the Temptation to Demonstrate His Power (29-30)

The people passing by, Mark says, were hurling abuse at Him. It is interesting that the Greek word he uses here is the word from which we get our term blasphemy. It usually means “to speak evil of God.” Though certainly they did not believe they were speaking of God, no one who blasphemes usually does. Usually blasphemy is spoken against a god someone doesn’t believe in, or a notion of God that someone rejects. But they may have been aware that Jesus claimed to be God, and therefore, they were mocking that claim as they ridiculed Him. Notice that they go back to the false accusation that was made against Jesus when He was on trial before the chief priest in 14:58 – “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and in three days I will build another made without hands.’” This was an elaboration and conflation of two different things Jesus said. He did say that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, but He never said He was going to destroy it. And He said that if “this temple,” meaning His body, were destroyed, He would raise it up again in three days, referring to His resurrection. But those who heard Him either misunderstood or intentionally twisted His words to make Jesus appear to be a terrorist who was intent on destroying the literal temple of Jerusalem. That temple had been nearly 50 years in the making, and still wasn’t finished in Jesus’ day. It was the most impressive and massive structure any of these people had ever seen, and in their minds, no human force could ever destroy it.

Their misunderstanding of Jesus’ words and their ideas about the temple are the foundation of the mockery they hurled at Jesus. “Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross.” In other words, we can’t believe that you have the power to destroy the Temple if you can’t even save yourself from the cross!” The chief priests and scribes even joined in this line of thinking, though they were too cowardly to voice their insults aloud – they were mocking Him among themselves, saying, “[Let Him] come down from the cross so that we may see and believe!” Jesus had told them in 14:62, “You shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” But all they saw was a condemned man hanging on a cross. They say to themselves, “We don’t see any power here! Why doesn’t He show us some power so we may believe? If He wants us to believe He’s God, He’s going to have to prove it!”

This goes back to the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 8 where they asked Him for a sign. You recall that Jesus said, “Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And here they are asking for a sign again. Paul will say in 1 Cor 1:22 that it is the customary practice of Jewish people to seek for signs, but Paul says we have only one message for them: Christ crucified. And they find this message to be a stumbling block – an obstacle they cannot overcome by faith to understand.

With this abuse being hurled at Jesus, He is presented with the temptation of demonstrating His power to prove Himself to them. He has endured their rejection and scorn, their unbelief and hatred, throughout His entire earthly ministry. Now here at the end, if He could muster up enough divine power to deliver Himself from the cross, just maybe they will repent and believe. It is an understandable temptation. After all, surely the one who can cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead, and calm storms can come down from a cross. Satan had presented Jesus with a similar temptation in the wilderness – if He would throw Himself down from the peak of the Temple, He would gain favor in the eyes of all the people. But He refuses here just as He did there. Contrary to popular belief, seeing is not always believing, nor do visible signs always have as much convincing power as think they do. Remember that Pharaoh remained hard of heart after the plagues on Egypt, and his pseudo-magicians were even able to perform signs of their own! Rather, it seems that believing often is prerequisite to seeing. Matthew 13:58 says that Jesus did not do many miracles in His hometown of Nazareth “because of their unbelief.” These people have access to the Word of God, and if they would believe has been written, they would see Jesus for who He is. But their constant clamoring for signs demonstrates their hard-hearted unbelief. Jesus has refused to give them signs before, and He refuses to still in the face of His last temptations. He has told them to only expect one sign – the sign of Jonah the prophet, who was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three night; so would Jesus be three days and night in the heart of the earth before rising again. But even then, in the wake of such an unprecedented miracle, do these believe? Very few do. The chief priests and Pharisees in fact begin to concoct a story about the disciples stealing the body. So we see here that in the hours of His death, Jesus overcame the temptation to demonstrate His power.

III. Jesus Faced the Temptation to Disrupt His Father’s Plan (vv31-32)

We have already made mention of the mocking words of the religious leaders in vv31-32. “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross!” It is the most understandable thing in all the world to think of saving oneself. It is our most natural instinct to any potential threat. Jesus has already wrestled with this temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane as He prayed that the Father would let this cup pass from Him – the cup of suffering and death for sin. Nevertheless, in the Garden He prayed, “Not what I will, but what You will.” He committed Himself to the Father’s plan. The Father’s plan was that Jesus would be the substitute for sinful man and die to redeem humanity. And though the religious leaders intended their words as a mockery, underlying them was a Satanic temptation that sought to persuade Jesus to abandon the Father’s will, come down from the cross and save Himself.

Satan has a vested interest in the outcome. If Jesus doesn’t die for sin, then mankind remains in the grip of Satan’s power helpless and hopeless of ever being reconciled to God. So with these mocking voices comes a bombardment of demonic pressure upon the Lord to save Himself and let humanity perish forever with Satan in hell. But Jesus has not come to save Himself, but to save sinners! He has saved others, yes, in the sense of healing their diseases and demonic oppression, but the salvation of those individuals from their sins will not be accomplished if He doesn’t die on the cross. In fact, all the promises of forgiveness and redemption given to the Old Testament saints of God looked forward in anticipation to this event. And the salvation of every person since then looks back on the completed work of Christ on the cross. The fact is that unless He refuses to save Himself here, Jesus cannot save others. And as for seeing and believing, a Christ who comes down from the cross is no Christ to believe in, for only by remaining on the cross does He become the Redeemer to whom we look by faith to save us. Thus, the mission of God would be disrupted if He came down from the cross. And thanks be to God! He did not yield to this temptation. Because of His death and resurrection, Satan is defeated fully and finally, and His grip on humanity through sin is broken.

The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame” for “the joy that was set before Him.” The joy of fulfilling the Father’s mission and reconciling sinful people like me and you to God held Him on the cross when it was well within His power to save Himself. But by resisting the last temptations that were heaved upon Him, Jesus gave His life to save ours. He refused to deaden the pain; refused to demonstrate His power; and refused to disrupt His Father’s plan. Therefore, we are able to turn from sin and trust in what He has done for us to save us. He died for our sins and is risen from the grave so that all who believe upon Him may be forgiven and set free, given the gift of eternal life in Heaven. Consider, friends, what great love God has demonstrated for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Have you come to Him in repentance and faith? Have you received this gift of His love? If not, why turn away from such an indescribable offer? This very day, you can call out to Him and receive Him as Lord and Savior and receive the salvation and eternal life that He died and rose again to give you. My prayer today is that all who have never received Him would do so in light of what He has done for us. And my prayer for those of us who have received Him would ponder anew His infinite love for us. And may the example of Jesus in the face of such intense temptation strengthen us to withstand those which come our way as well. May we face life’s hardships soberly, consider the needs of others over our own, and trust in the power of God’s Word to change the lives of those we know as we share this message with them.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Thank you and God Bless You!