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The Last Temptation of Christ

            Contrary to the novel and film of this name, both of which I only know by reading a written summary, the last temptation of Jesus was not to live a normal human life.  Even the devil knows that it went much deeper than that. As the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the crucifixion shows, Jesus was tempted with regard to his identity as the Son of God.

            In Matthew 27:32-44 Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God is mocked by the passersby and the Jewish religious leaders.  The two thieves who were being crucified with him mocked him in the same way.  They all thought that a true Son of God would be able to come down miraculously from the cross and save himself or be delivered from such an ignominious death. 

            In Matthew 12:38-42 and 16:1-4 Jesus rejects the idea that this kind of miracle working would authenticate his claim to be the Son of God.  Both times he says that “an evil and adulterous generation” would make such a request.  The only sign given would be the sign of the prophet Jonah.  Just as Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale, so Jesus would spend three days in the earth.  The sign of his authenticity as the Son of God would be his death on the cross, his burial and resurrection.

            The context of both of these “sign” passages is important.  In Matthew 16:5-12 Jesus warns his disciples to avoid the teaching of the Pharisees.  Jesus then asks his disciples who they think that he is. Peter confesses truly that Jesus is the Son of the living God.  Unfortunately, when Jesus begins to talk about his death and resurrection, the true sign that he was God’s Son, Peter rebukes him.  The expectation of a sign of divine sonship other than that of a suffering and dying one clearly is a common human error (16:13-22).

            It may also be Satanic.  Jesus commands Peter, “Get behind me, Satan” (v. 23).  In Matthew 12 Jesus compares the evil generation that requests a sign other than the sign of Jonah to a man taken over by unclean spirits.  Even more clearly, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus is tempted by the devil three times (4:1-11).  The first two explicitly call on him to authenticate himself as the Son of God by performing spectacular miracles and having God miraculously deliver him from death.

            The parallel between the first temptation of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry and the last at its end should not be overlooked.  The first is directly by the devil; the second by humans.  Nevertheless, the intervening passages in Matthew associate the human request with the demonic.  Those mockers of the crucified Christ were indeed humans, but the evil one was speaking through them.

            The paradox of the cross is that by suffering and dying for us and thus being risen Jesus left us the true sign of what it meant to be God’s Son.  Let us avoid the satanically inspired human expectation that the Son of God must be a miracle worker who would not suffer and die.  Thank God Jesus overcame that last temptation!

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