Having been immersed these last few weeks in Fleming Rutledge’s phenomenal and monumental The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus, 40: The Temptation of Christ (a recently released and independent 2020 release available for rent or purchase on most platforms) proved to be a fitting. highly visual, and complimentary addition for understanding and ruminating on Rutledge’s treaties of the nature of the Cross and the work of Salvation.
Central to Rutledge’s understanding of the Gospel and the Christian Witness lies this distinction between capital letter Sin and small letter sin. As Rutledge writes, “The Church has always been tempted to recast the Christian story in terms of individual fault and guilt that can be overcome by a decision to repent.” And this temptation comes from our need to control the narrative of the Cross in particular ways through a misapplication of the idea of “sin” as that which condemns and that which saves.
And yet for Paul, the earliest written witness to the Death and Resurrection of Christ, the dominant understanding, framed by (capital letter) Sin, is that of the “Powers” that hold us bondage, the Powers being Sin (evil and the devil, understood in its rich theological and literary context) and Death. For Paul, “the sequence is not sin-repentance-grace-forgiveness, but grace-sin-deliverance-repentance-grace.” As Rutledge points out, grace derives the sequence from first to last, with both Grace (the Power of God) and Sin and Death (the Power of Evil or the Evil One) precluding this movement from grace to grace.
This might sound like mere semantics, speaking of the same word in both capital and small letter form, but this understanding of God’s saving work is integral to understanding what it is God is doing on the Cross, the Way for which John came to prepare, the moment in which this film begins and opens with, and the powerful imagery of of Lent that we find in its depiction of Christ’s time in the Wilderness.
From the Temptation to the Cross: Finding The Grand Narrative
To understand what Jesus is doing, and what the Temptation Narrative is reconciling, we must understand the declarative and proclamative truth that the Cross declares, which is that “what is wrong (the injustice and suffering that we find in this world) is being made right”, both in the world and in us, both individually and collectively. The Cross, framed in the light of the Resurrection, declares to us that God is not under the power of the Evil One, and that the Powers that hold us bondage can be resisted. “Yeshua means God saves, and Matthews reference makes explicit the connection between the Messiah’s name and salvation from sin.” (Rutledge). As the film so aptly depicts in connecting Jesus’ formative years to His time in the wilderness, who Jesus is (God incarnate) and what Jesus does is one in the same- God’s saving work.
In one of the film’s flashback sequences, we hear a conversation between Joseph and Yeshua, where Joseph tells him, “Sin is the reason that we suffer Yeshua, it is the reason that we die.” This is framed against the visual and symbolic force of the Temptation that drives this film, a depiction the film brings to the forefront in through its grand and sweeping narrative context. It is here that we gain a picture, in its expressive and Mystical Eastern context (something we in the West have become adverse to), of this story of Good and Evil, competing forces that exist and persist outside and above ourselves, a spiritual warfare in which we have (all) become evil’s conscripts. Knowing that the scriptwriter for this film is a big, big fan of the horror genre, it is not surprising to me that this would prove a perfect playing field in which to evoke these very spiritually laden pictures, ideas and truths through tonal expressions befitting the genre. And not unexpectedly, the story is brought to life within some recognizable horror constructs (including the use of score, tension, and camera work that guides this tension between the known and the unknown, the tension and the resistance) able to capture the gravity of this narrative reality in its Scriptural context.
The Temptation, Righteousness and Understanding God’s Saving Work
Paramount to Rutledge’s understanding of the Crucifixion is her understanding of the theological idea of justification, or righteousness. When understood within modern constructs of penal substitution (the common understanding of salvation that sees our small letter sin (action) as the cause of Jesus’ death, and Jesus’ moral goodness (righteousness) as that which saves us from our sin), justification ultimately becomes enslaved to a works based solution that misses the true power of this grand narrative of The Temptation and the Crucifixion to which it points (which the film does through some nice use of flash forwards), and its proclamation that what is wrong is being (and has been) made right.
What is striking to recognize about the temptation narrative is how connected the Powers (capital letter Sin) is to the notion of power (small letter sin). Each of the temptations represents a concern for power, the power to attend to our suffering, our happiness, our benefit. It is through resisting this power that Christ shifts the view from Himself to the needs of the world. It is here that Sin and Death become expressed through the primary concern in scripture for the reality of injustice (and justice, or justification) in the world. This is why Rutledge believes, and often restates, that the Righteousness of Jesus, of God, is not a noun, but a verb. “It is not so much that God is righteous but that he does righteousness (justification).” We know this intuitively, but perhaps no more intimately than in our times of suffering. This is where we the Cross becomes good news. God, in Jesus, sees, identifies and is acting upon the injustice of this world, making this world new, bringing to bear the New Heavens and the New Earth, the new Creation. Therefore, through this proclamation we have hope.
“God did not son to the earth to condemn it, he sent His son to the earth to save it” is the declaration that we hear from Jesus’ definitive proclamation in the films climatic moment, a powerful and poignant depiction of Good and Evil standing face to face, a moment in which life is raised above death (in the powerful imagery of the lamb) as the greater Power.
“Were it not for the mercy of God surrounding us, we would have no perspective from which to view sin, for we would be entirely subject to it. That is the reason for affirming that wherever sin is unmasked and confessed, God’s redemptive power is already present and acting.” (Rutledge). What I really liked about the film is the way it connects this temptation narrative both to these flashbacks and flashforwards. It helps to remind us that the Cross is not retributive in nature, but declarative. It is a present work, not simply a historical reality. Jesus willingly sees a world under the Power of Sin and Death and aligns Himself to it, with it, and within it. He embodies the injustice of the Powers of Sin and Death and in so doing declares God’s justice (our justification) as that which is able to make what is wrong right.
This is why, as the film ultimately declares in its final (and beautiful) sequence, we must continue to walk in faith even when we cannot see. This is the truth of our already-not yet already. We are called as participants in what God is doing on the Cross, guided by the Word, the Word that is Christ, the Word, as Rutledge puts it, that is the Cross. This is the Way forward, not away from the suffering of our present reality but towards it, because in God’s righteousness, in His seeing, identifying and acting on injustice, this world is being made right again within this reality. To walk in the Way is to see this more clearly, is for this truth, the proclamation of the Cross, to be made known in our lives and in the world.
Here’s the link to the film’s info on Letterboxd: