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The Last Temptation of Christ

Jesus was never confused about his dual humanity and divinity.

Text: Luke 4:1–14
Topic: Why the novel and film The Last Temptation of Christ are controversial


I think we all know who the candidates for vice-president are. But if we were to go back 12 years, we might have difficulty remembering. That is an American problem, but being British I also have to admit that, while I know Queen Victoria died around about the turn of the century, I would have to concentrate to figure out which kings and queens followed her, and in what order. It's amazing how quickly people in the public eye disappear from the public consciousness.

I was thinking about this the other day when I got my copy of Time magazine. On the front I discovered Jesus of Nazareth. Inside, I discovered he was on the cover of Time magazine for the 16th time—surely a record for somebody who was around 1,900 years ago!

Isn't it amazing the sheer fascination that Jesus Christ has for people today? Why does he have this fascination for millions? And why is it that 1,900 years after he moved on this earth in a very obscure region, traveled very little, wrote no books, he still makes an impact on human society like no other person?

Of course we all know he made the cover of Time this particular instance because a movie has come out recently, entitled The Last Temptation of Christ. This movie is highly controversial. I think it would be true to say that any movie based on the life of Jesus Christ is bound to be controversial, for the simple reason that he himself is at the very center of controversy in human thinking.

I'm well aware of the fact that, as Ezekiel the prophet trod among thorns and scorpions, I may be doing a similar thing this morning. And I have made inquiries as to other job possibilities as of tomorrow.

But my reason for talking to you on this subject is this: I recognize that feelings run deeply and emotions run high on this subject, and I think that's appropriate. If we don't care about Jesus, then our Christianity really doesn't matter much. On the other hand, the response we make from our deep feelings needs to be thought through carefully. I'm not going to tell you what your response ought to be, but I trust we will throw some light on the subject.

The novelist and director were motivated by a desire to understand Jesus.

First, I want to mention the book and the film. It's helpful to understand the backgrounds of the persons who made them. In 1955, a gentleman born in Crete, Nikos Kazantzakis, wrote a book, The Last Temptation of Christ—500 pages. Mr. Kazantzakis was nominated on numerous occasions for the Nobel Prize for literature. He wrote the well-known book Zorba the Greek and one of the most highly regarded books on Saint Francis of Assisi. He was evacuated from Crete to Naxos, and while he was there, he went to a school run by Franciscan monks. He became deeply interested in Christianity. He went to Athens to university and then to Paris, where he was introduced to Western philosophy.

It's interesting, however, to notice that he returned from his Athenian and his Parisian educational experience and went straight to Mount Athos. Mount Athos is a monastery that has been in existence since, I think, the 11th century, where ascetic believers go in order that they might "try to contact the Savior."

Kazantzakis went there for six months and, enclosed in a tiny cell, tried to contact the Savior. He came away disillusioned. He was introduced to the philosopher Nietzsche, became disillusioned with him; became a Buddhist, became disillusioned with Buddhism; was enamored of Lenin and became an ardent follower of Leninism, became disillusioned with that; and, toward the end of his life, returned to his first concern in Christianity. And it was in the latter part of his life that he wrote The Last Temptation of Christ.

The movie was directed by Martin Scorsese. Time calls him "America's most gifted and most daring movie maker." Scorsese has an interesting spiritual background. As a boy, he was an altar boy. As an adolescent, he seriously considered the priesthood.

Second, I want to talk to you about the sound and the fury. You probably noticed this book and this film have produced all kinds of strong reaction. Why is this? Well, on the one hand you have the professions of the creators, and on the other hand you have the protests of the offended. Let me remind you of what those who created the book and the movie say about it.

This is what Kazantzakis says in the prologue to his book, and the movie opens with this specific quote: "The dual substance of Christ"—by that he means the humanity and the deity of Christ—"the yearning so human, so superhuman, of man to attain to God, or more exactly, to return to God and identify himself with him, has always been a deep, inscrutable mystery to me. This nostalgia for God, at once so mysterious and real, has opened in me large wounds and also large flowing springs."

He protests that this book was written, and I'm simply quoting him, "out of a deep nostalgia for God." Out of a deep desire to understand the dual nature of Christ. Out of a deep desire to discover how in Christ he might find that which would help him overcome in his struggles against temptation. I'm not saying whether he's being honest or not, but that is what he professes.

When we come to the profession of Scorsese, what interested him was "the way that the human part of Jesus would presumably have difficulty accepting the divine." In other words, he, too, was interested in this unique Christ, both fully human and fully divine. And what interested him was: How would the human part be able to cope with the discovery that he was divine?

He said of the film he made, "This is my way at trying to get closer to God." In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, he said, "What you see on the screen are my lifelong questions."

So on the one hand, we have the author professing certain spiritual concerns. We have the director of the movie professing great spiritual concerns.

Protesters were offended by the film's theological errors and assumptions.

But then, on the other hand, we have very strong, deeply felt protests by those who've been offended. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade offered to raise six million dollars and give it to Universal Studios if they would give him every copy of the movie, and then he would publicly burn it.

Donald Wildmon has mailed out 2.5 million letters and organized 700 spots on Christian radio stations, not to mention about 75 TV spots, encouraging Christians to publicly protest and take a stand against the movie. A protest was held on the 11th of August at Universal Studios, and about 15,000 people showed up. Jerry Falwell has called for a boycott of MCA, the Universal parent company, and has stated that the movie is libel, slander, and ridicule. The Roman Catholic Church has called it morally offensive.

Why are people protesting so strongly against it? I would suggest they are objecting to three things.

Number one, the movie contains many unwarranted assumptions. The movie opens, for instance, with scenes showing Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter, busy making crosses, thereby suggesting he was collaborating with the Romans. One of the central figures in the movie is Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is seen as a prostitute. We know Christ did minister to prostitutes and was roundly criticized for it, but was Mary Magdalene a prostitute? There's absolutely no evidence in Scripture to suggest she was. And there is the assumption that Judas Iscariot was really the strong man of the disciples and that the Lord Jesus, when he was having difficulty with his own identity and mission, was able to lean on Judas, who had a strong, clear conviction concerning what Christ's ministry should be. Many people aware of these assumptions in the movie take deep exception to them.

The second reason is that there are clear theological errors in the movie. Time magazine calls them "theological gaffes." At one stage in the movie, Jesus picks up a handful of dirt and says, "Everything is part of God." That's pantheism, New Age. Time magazine said that at this point "Jesus is made to talk like a recent graduate of Shirley MacLaine's seminary." This is clearly theologically in error. Jesus, because he is shown to be a human struggling with his humanity and his mission and his message, is at one point seen to apologize to his mother. He is portrayed as someone who succumbs to fear and to hatred and to many other human foibles, and this is deeply offensive to many people.

Of course the big thing that has been pointed out by protesters is that Jesus is portrayed as marrying Mary Magdalene, who dies, and then he marries Mary of Bethany and apparently has some kind of a relationship with her sister.

I think there's some misunderstanding at this point. The point of the movie is to deal with the last temptation of Christ: people yelling at him as he hung on the cross, "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." And so the movie explores the possibility.

The last 30 or 40 minutes is pure imagination, showing what would have happened if Christ had come down from the cross. The Devil comes to him on the cross in the form of a sweet, rather ordinary-looking adolescent girl who says to him, "Jesus, your Father, when Abraham showed he was willing to sacrifice his son, stayed his hand and said, 'You've proved it; that's enough.' You have shown you're willing to die. That's enough. Come down from the cross. You've shown your love for the Father. There's no need to go any further. Now just live a normal life."

The point of the movie, however, is this: Christ is shown to have resisted that temptation. The movie closes with Christ bowing his head and saying, "It is accomplished." The big problem is the 30 or 40 minutes in between there, in which the imaginations of the novelist and the film director simply go hog wild and show what would have happened if Christ had come down from the cross. But remember the whole point of both the novel and the film is that he didn't; he resisted this temptation and came out triumphant.

However, in that last section, if those things are taken out of context, they would be deeply offensive. And even in context, they would be deeply offensive to many people.

And so that's the reason for the sound and the fury. On the one hand, you have the profound professions of those who created this thing, and on the other hand you have the protests of those who've been deeply offended.

As historical fiction, Last Temptation falls short in its portrayal of Jesus.

Now third, let me talk to you about the facts and the fiction. Remember, this book, written in 1955, is billed as a novel, and the movie is careful to point out at the opening that this is based on a novel and is not based on the Gospels. However, when people decide to write fiction based on history, how much freedom do they have?

For instance, I think it would be perfectly legitimate for a novelist to write about Pearl Harbor. But I do not think it would be appropriate for him to say Pearl Harbor is in Japan and the Americans bombed the Japanese. He can say it's just a novel, but he cannot write a novel purporting to be related to a historical fact and distort the historical evidence.

That is one of the issues we need to look at: What are the historical facts? First of all, there is an abundance of data—a vast number of documents, and all manner of historical verifications—that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. Therefore, any novel about him that explores this greatest of all mysteries—the dual nature of Christ, his humanity and deity—must be constrained by the historical evidence.

The historical evidence tells us about the mystery of his incarnation. The mystery is that the eternal Word, the one who was with God before the worlds were made—the one by whom, for whom, and through whom all things were made—was born as a baby. That is the mystery par excellence; nobody has plumbed its depths.

I believe it is perfectly appropriate for a Cretan novelist and a filmmaker to explore it, and for everybody to look seriously at what the Bible says about the Incarnation and try to discover what it means that Christ was fully divine and fully human at the same time. And I promise you something: Neither the novelist nor the film director nor you nor I will ever adequately be able to understand it.

The Bible teaches that Christ was the Son of Man. The mistake, made by many when they hear about the humanity of Christ, is because of this: the Bible teaches two kinds of humanity. There's pre-Fall humanity and post-Fall humanity. I believe the error of the novel and the movie is that they're assuming post-Fall humanity for Christ instead of recognizing that Christ was pre-Fall humanity in the image of God, living perfectly as man was intended to live.

On the other hand, Christ clearly claimed to be the Son of God. To suggest that he never made that claim is not to do justice to the evidence. He was crucified by the authorities on a charge of blasphemy—claiming to be equal with the Father. Now, if he was not the Son of God, he was a blasphemer. But if he was speaking the truth, he was claiming to be the Son of God. We don't have any options other than to say Jesus was a blasphemer or Jesus was claiming to be the Son of God.

There is all kinds of evidence not only to show he was truly human, but to show he was truly divine. However, the mystery of the Incarnation not only talked about his humanity and his deity, but the unity of the two.

There are six major heresies concerning Christ that were dealt with in the early centuries at the great councils, from which came the great creeds. The heresies concerning Jesus Christ always moved in the area of the interplay between his humanity and his deity and the unity of them both. Dr. Mel Lawrenz on our staff said to me that he believes what the novel and movie are talking about is simply ancient Nestorianism, which was resolved in the fifth century. There are no new heresies.

I was talking to Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian about this book and this movie the other day, and he said, "The problem for Christians is that we are guilty of the heresy of Docetism." That heresy is saying that Christ was fully divine but only seemed to be human. And he said, "We have to look at this issue even more carefully."

The facts, however, are that in some way Christ was never less than fully divine but chose never to act more than fully human. Mystery. And it's in this area that all the creativity, all the imagination, and, many people would say, all the fallen imagination of people is operating.

I read this from Dr. Millard Erickson: "If you get two top, world-class athletes, and you invite them to run in a three-legged race, they would never cease to be top, world-class athletes, but they would never win the Olympics. They have voluntarily imposed upon themselves limitations." That does not mean their true capacity has in any sense been limited, but it does mean that through their own free choice they have limited that capability.

In exactly the same way, Christ never ceased to be fully divine, but chose to act fully pre-Fall human, which means he lived in total dependence upon the Father and in complete obedience to the Father. Therefore, many of the surmises concerning Christ have to be carefully gauged on that principle. He was not fallen humanity; he was pre-Fall humanity.

Scripture says, and we read it here in Luke 4, that he was tempted of the Devil. We know he was tempted during the 40 days. We also know "he was tempted in all points like as we are." But the big thing that the Scripture teaches is, "yet he was without sin." So if there is at any point any suggestion that Jesus Christ succumbed to temptation and sinned, that is clearly anti-biblical.

If the last 30 or 40 minutes of the movie are intended to portray what would have happened if he had succumbed to the temptation, which he did not, that's one thing. If the movie, on the other hand, is saying he did succumb, then clearly it is totally anti-biblical.

The Bible also teaches about the efficacy of his death, that this historical Christ as God offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins, a ransom for many. And the Father accepted it and proved it by raising him from the dead. Those are the facts, according to the Scriptures.

Now the fiction. The fiction is based on an attempt to harmonize the deity and the humanity of Christ, and here conjectures come in. For instance, did he struggle with self-identity? The movie suggested he did, unsure of who he really was. I doubt that very much.

When he was a boy in the temple, he said to his parents, "Don't you understand I must be about my Father's business?" He didn't seem to have any problems there, did he? And you remember it says about him that as a boy he "increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and in favor with man." It seems it is saying there is an increasing growth in maturity and understanding but no suggestion that he struggled with his identity.

Another question that comes up is: Did he have a clear sense of mission? The movie suggested at one time he decided to preach a message of love and at another time he decided to preach, "the ax is laid at the root of the tree," that at one time he was concerned about the spiritual and then he changed and became concerned about the political.

It is perfectly true that he had all these concerns, but is it true to say he was struggling with his mission and was vacillating between one and the other? No. He was balancing these things. He certainly was concerned about the political, and certainly was concerned about the physical and the spiritual, and certainly was preaching a message of love. But he also was preaching a message of judgment.

There are a lot of assumptions being made and certainly theological errors. And there's no question in my mind that there are clearly biased opinions.

Focus can emerge from the film's confused portrayal of Jesus.

Considerable confusion will result from this movie. The reason for it is, first of all, it's based on a confused premise that Jesus as man struggled to accept his deity. There is a confused message. The confused message is basically that Jesus struggled to ascend to be identified with God, and because he struggled in these areas, he is a tremendous example and encouragement to us.

But he is not an encouragement and example to us because he tried to struggle from humanity to deity; he's a tremendous encouragement and example for us in that he—totally God—confined himself to humanity and willingly died on the cross for us. That's the encouragement.

The movie could leave a confused audience. My personal feeling is that the confusion is going to come because people totally miss the point at the last 30 or 40 minutes: that this is what the temptation was, but he did not succumb. The focus on all this should be, I suggest, that the Lord Jesus, because he was fully human and lived among us for 33 years, fully understands the human dilemma.

That is one of the delightful aspects of the humanity of Christ. Hebrews tells us "he is touched with the feelings of our infirmities." How could he be that if he hadn't lived among us?

One thing you have to say about the movie is that, in a realistic way, it demonstrates the horror and the violence and the harshness of the life he lived. The movie, in a most dramatic way, demonstrates many of the miracles and, in the most heart-rending way, portrays the horror of him being violently beaten by the soldiers and then cruelly, mercilessly crucified.

It's possible for people to see that movie and begin to inquire about this remarkable person who suffered so deeply. It might be possible for us to point people to the fact that he fully understands our pain, fully understands the horror of many of our lives.

The second thing we need to focus on is that Christ became human and was divine and died on the cross to procure our salvation.

And the third and final thing is this: that he, being aware of our deep need and having died and risen again to procure our salvation, is in himself able to undergird all those who wish to triumph over their temptation.

© 1989 Stuart Briscoe
A Resource of Christianity Today International

Stuart Briscoe is minister-at-large of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and author of several books, including What Works When Life Doesn't (Howard Books).

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Sermon Outline:


The controversy over the film shows that feelings still run deep about Jesus 1,900 years after he lived on earth.

I. Novelist and director motivated by desire to understand Jesus.

II. Protesters are offended by film?s theological errors and assumptions.

III. As historical fiction, Last Temptation falls short in its portrayal of Jesus.


Focus can emerge from the film?s confused portrayal of Jesus.