March 14, 2004

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST

No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. John 10:18

Mel Gibson is rich and famous. He’s one of the world’s top movie stars and an Oscar-winning director. Mel Gibson says that Jesus Christ is the most important person who ever lived. He doesn’t just say this; he puts his money where his mouth is. Gibson reportedly spent more than $30 million of his own money to make The Passion of the Christ, a movie about Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. Gibson not only invested millions of dollars, he invested himself. As writer, producer, and director, Mel Gibson spent his time, talent, and energy, trying to make the most accurate, powerful film possible.

Some people didn’t think it was a wise financial move for Gibson to make this movie. How could he hope to make a profit or even recover his original investment on such a film? It doesn’t seem to fit the usual formula for Hollywood action movies and romances. Well, Gibson didn’t do it for the money, but he still figured the film might do better and attract more viewers than skeptics might think. After all, people flock to movies about adventure or love. “The Passion,” said Gibson, “is the biggest adventure story of all time. I think it’s the biggest love story of all time; God becoming man and men killing God — if that’s not action, nothing is.”

Whatever else might be said about Gibson’s movie, it is brutal and bloody. Few of us know how horribly Jesus was tortured just by reading about it. Back in the time of the Roman Empire, many people had seen public floggings and crucifixions. The Bible didn’t need to give much detail for people to know what Jesus went through. When the Bible said, “Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged” (John 19:1), many of the original readers had witnessed flogging firsthand and knew how horrible it was. When the Bible says, “They crucified him” (Mark 15:24), the original readers had witnessed how hideous it was to die this way. But if you’ve never watched someone torn to shreds by a whip, if you’ve never seen human flesh pierced by nails and thorns, this movie shows the bloody brutality. The movie graphically shows what the Bible means when it says, “There were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness” (Isaiah 52:14). “When all the people who gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away” (Luke 23:48).

Those who witness the sight on film may feel appalled and walk away stunned. A businessman who saw The Passion of the Christ said, “At the end of the film, most people were in a state of numbed shock. It is definitely the most powerful film I have ever seen.” Evangelist Billy Graham said, “I doubt if there has been a more graphic and moving presentation of Jesus’ death and resurrection.” Cal Thomas said, “’The Passion’ is the most beautiful, profound, accurate, disturbing, realistic, and bloody depiction of this well-known story that has ever been filmed.” Journalist Michael Novak said the same: “It is the most powerful movie I have ever seen.”

Christians weren’t the only ones the movie impressed. Internet personality Matt Drudge said, “Speaking as a Jew, I thought it was a magical film… Every single person was in tears… I’m talking total tears… This film, I tell you, is magic. It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle.” Jewish film critic Michael Medved calls it “by far the most moving, substantive, and artistically successful adaptation of biblical material ever attempted by Hollywood… It is going to move people.”

Who’s to Blame?

Long before the movie came out, some people protested. They feared that the Passion movie would stir up the wrong sort of passions. They had not even seen the film, but they feared it would be anti-Jewish and might spark hatred and violence toward Jews. They knew that in centuries past, some people spoke of Jews as Christ-killers. They feared that a graphic movie about Jesus’ death, produced by a superstar with worldwide impact, might stir the ancient evil of blaming every Jew for killing Christ.

Gibson said, “Neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic… The movie is meant to inspire, not offend.” But some foes of the film said that it was bound to be anti-Jewish if it reflected the biblical gospels. They insisted that the gospels themselves are anti-Jewish. But at least three of the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, and John—were written by Jews! The gospels show that Jesus himself was Jewish, his mother Mary was Jewish, the twelve apostles were Jewish, and almost all his first followers were Jewish. Jesus did much of his teaching in Jewish synagogues and in the Jewish temple. People addressed Jesus with the Jewish title “Rabbi.” Some Jews rejected Jesus, but the New Testament never says that the Lord rejected all Jews. On the contrary, it says, “Did God reject his people? By no means!” (Romans 11:1).

Even so, some people insist that the gospels are anti-Semitic because they say that some Jewish people helped crucify Jesus. But that’s just a fact of history. The gospels also say that Roman officials and soldiers nailed Jesus to the cross. That doesn’t make the gospels anti-Italian. It is simply saying what happened. The gospels aren’t anti-Jewish.

Saying that Gibson’s passion film is anti-Jewish because some Jews in it do bad things is like saying Gibson’s Oscar-winning film Braveheart is anti-Scottish because it shows some cowardly Scottish officials doing bad things, such as betraying the hero, William Wallace. But Wallace himself was Scottish. In a story that took place in Scotland, some of the villains were bound to be Scottish, but so were the heroes, including the main hero. Likewise, in a story that took place in Israel, some of the villains were bound to be Jewish, but so were all the heroes, including the main hero, Jesus himself.

Jewish journalist David Horowitz saw The Passion of the Christ and called it “an overpowering work.” Horowitz said, “I can’t remember being so affected by a film before… It is not anti-Semitic, as the film-burners have charged.” No doubt there are still anti-Jewish people around, but their hatred is based on sinful prejudice, not on gospel accounts of Jesus’ death or a film about it. Rabbi Daniel Lapin says, “In America, if there are illiterate and dangerous thugs, Christianity is a cure, not the cause. In America, few Jews have ever been murdered, mugged, robbed, or raped by Christians returning home from church on Sunday morning. America is history’s most philo-Semitic country, providing the most hospitable home for Jews in the past two thousand years.”

The more you study the biblical gospels, and the more you know and love Jesus Christ, the less likely you will be to hate or harm Jewish people. Jesus himself said, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). The book of my salvation is a Jewish book. The Lord of my salvation is a Jewish carpenter and rabbi. Physically I am non-Jewish, but spiritually I am Jewish. I am a child of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. It would be stupid and sinful for me to hate any race of people based on prejudice, and it would be especially stupid of me to hate Jews.

I don’t think of all Jews or all Italians as Christ-killers for what a number of Jewish priests and Roman soldiers did centuries ago. If anyone is to blame for Jesus’ death, I don’t need to look any further than the mirror. Who killed Jesus? I did. I echo a poet who wrote,

No, it was not the Jews who crucified,

Nor who betrayed You in the judgment place,

Nor who, Lord Jesus, spat into Your face,

Nor who with buffets struck You as You died.

No, it was not the soldiers fisted bold

Who lifted up the hammer and the nail,

Or raised the cursed cross on Calvary’s hill,

Or, gambling, tossed the dice to win Your robe.

I am the one, O Lord, who brought You there,

I am the heavy cross You had to bear,

I am the rope that bound You to the tree,

The whip, the nail, the hammer, and the spear,

The blood-stained crown of thorns You had to wear:

It was my sin, alas, it was for me.

(by Jacob Revius, trans. Henrietta Ten Harmsel)

Apparently, Mel Gibson understands this. In The Passion of the Christ, he is writer, producer, and director. But he did not give himself a major acting role in this film, even though his greatest fame is as an actor. Gibson appears at one point, though. When Jesus is nailed to the cross, the hand holding the dreadful spike is Mel Gibson’s own hand. That’s the artist’s way of saying that he sees himself involved in the death of Christ.

If I want the benefits of Jesus’ blood, I must also take the blame. If I say that my sins had nothing to do with Jesus’ death, then I have nothing to do with his salvation. In order for Jesus’ death to do me good, I must confess that Jesus died for my sins. Jesus went through all those horrors because of me.

Every true Christian looks at the suffering of Jesus and says, “I’m the one to blame. I caused all his pain.”

A Willing Sacrifice

But even as I take responsibility for the sins that Jesus suffered for, I also recognize that he was not just a victim. Jesus died by his own choice and by the choice of his heavenly Father. When we think about the way Jesus died, we tend to pity him. Poor Jesus! He was good and kind, but he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time in the hands of the wrong people. A close companion betrayed him. A kangaroo court convicted him. A bunch of bullies beat him. A gutless governor sentenced him. Savage soldiers crucified him. A merciless mob mocked him. He endured horrible pain. And then he died. Who wouldn’t feel sorry for someone forced to suffer and die in such an awful way?

But according to the Bible, nobody forced Jesus to suffer and die. Jesus chose to suffer and die. He said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). Jesus was a willing sacrifice, not a helpless victim.  Jesus didn’t die because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing what was coming. He knew his enemies would arrest him and kill him. If Jesus had wanted to stay safe and healthy, all he had to do was stay away from Jerusalem. But instead, “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).

Jesus didn’t just happen to fall into the hands of the wrong people or get caught in a trap he couldn’t escape. When Judas betrayed him, it didn’t catch Jesus by surprise. Jesus knew back when he first chose Judas as a disciple that Judas would later betray him. Jesus could easily have avoided betrayal by not choosing Judas at all. Even on the night of betrayal, Jesus could have prevented it simply by making sure Judas never left his sight. But instead, Jesus told Judas he knew what he was plotting, and then he said, “What you are about to do, do quickly” (John 13:27).

Judas went out to Jesus’ enemies and came back leading a gang of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons.

Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.

“I am he,” Jesus said… When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. (John 18:3-6)

Even surrounded by a mob of armed men, Jesus wasn’t trapped. His very presence was enough to flatten them. They couldn’t lay a finger on Jesus unless he allowed it to happen. But Jesus chose not to escape. Instead, he gave his enemies time to get back up and get over their confusion. Then he told them again that he was the one they were after, and he told them to let his friends go.

At that point Jesus’ friend Peter jumped in. He drew a sword and struck a man, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this.” Almost before anyone realized what had happened, Jesus touched the man’s ear and healed him (Luke 22:51).

Jesus then made it clear that he wasn’t helpless, that if he wanted to fight, he had more than enough power to win. In fact, he himself wouldn’t have to lift a finger. He could just speak a word, and a host of supernatural warriors would overwhelm his enemies in an instant. Jesus said, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:53-54)

A legion was about 6,000, so twelve legions would mean about 72,000 angels. The Bible tells of a time when just one angel destroyed any army of 185,000 soldiers in a single night. If one angel is powerful enough to do that, just imagine what more than 72,000 angels could do. They could have blasted the gang that was after Jesus into such tiny bits that not a trace of them remained.  What were the angels thinking as the One they adored and served was surrounded by weak and wicked men? The angels were probably as eager to use their swords as Peter was to use his sword. The warriors of heaven stood rank upon rank, poised for the order to attack. But the order never came. The angels stood back, as commanded.

Jesus allowed his enemies to seize him and bind him and carry him away. The religious leaders held a sham of a trial. They accused and convicted and condemned him. They punched him in the face. He absorbed the abuse in silence. At any point along the way, Jesus could have ended his suffering in an instant. Just one word, and the warriors of heaven would have destroyed his enemies and set him free. But Jesus chose to suffer all the way to the end.

When Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, questioned him, Jesus wouldn’t reply to any of the charges against him. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” (John 19:9-11) Pilate was the most powerful man in the region, and he was backed by the might of the Roman emperor. But the only reason Pilate had the power to crucify Jesus was that the Lord gave him that power.

When Jesus hung on the cross, many onlookers hurled insults at him and said, “Come down from the cross and save yourself.” The religious leaders joked among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:29-32). But their insults didn’t provoke Jesus to leave the cross, any more than their nails and ropes forced him to stay on the cross. Jesus remained there of his own will.

Jesus suffered terribly as he hung on the cross. The physical pain was horrible, and the hell of divine punishment was far worse. But even so, when the moment came for Jesus to die, his life was not taken from him. He said, “It is finished,” as though he had completed a great task. Then, says the Bible, he “gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). Death didn’t come because Jesus no longer had strength to hold on. Jesus didn’t die with a last gasp or a faint mumble. No, says the Bible, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Even at the end, he had the strength to shout. Nobody took his spirit from him. He handed it over to his Father.

Clearly, Jesus was not just a tragic casualty of evil. He chose to go through all this. I’m not saying Jesus’ suffering wasn’t real; it was terribly real–worse than we can possibly imagine. But let’s not focus so much on Jesus’ suffering that we see only a slain martyr and pity him. If we do that, we won’t see God’s part in the story, and we won’t see our part in the story. Jesus was not a helpless victim. He was a willing sacrifice.

Why He Did It

It may sound crazy for someone to endure betrayal and injustice and torture and death if he had the power to avoid it. What possible reason could Jesus have for doing that? He had at least two reasons: his holy Father in heaven, and his sinful people on earth.

Jesus and his Father loved one another eternally. Somewhere in eternity, the Father designed a plan, and the Son agreed to carry it out: a plan in which the Son would endure hell and death and then rise victorious. In this way, Jesus would show his love and total obedience to the Father, and the Father would have all the more reason to love his dear Son. Jesus put it this way: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life–only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:17-18).

But why did Father and Son come up with such a plan in the first place? That’s where you and I come into the story. We are sinners. Our sin offends God. It separates us from his blessing. It provokes his just vengeance. It places us under the sentence of death and hell. And yet God, in his great love, decided on a way to save sinful people. How? By offering his Son as a substitute, a willing sacrifice to suffer and die in our place.

In short, Jesus suffered and died, not because he fell into the hands of people who left him no other choice, but because he loved his Father and he loved me. If I insist on identifying who was responsible for Jesus’ death, I can’t just look at those who took part at the time. I have to look in the mirror. If it weren’t for my sin and the sin of people like me, there would have been no need for Jesus to give himself as a willing sacrifice. Once the Father decided to save me, the only way to carry out the Father’s will was for Jesus to suffer hell and death in my place. So, whose evil heart and bad behavior were to blame for Jesus’ death? Mine. Once I know that nobody took Jesus’ life from him, that he laid it down of his own accord, then I have to ask why he would do such a thing, and I discover that it was in obedience to his Father and on account of me. This is what it took for Jesus to obey the Father’s will and carry out God’s plan to save me. It was for my sin that he chose to suffer the abuse of men. the wrath of God and the horror of hell.

What about you? Do you confess that Jesus was dealing with your sin when he suffered and died? Do you feel horror and deep sorrow over your sin? Or do you think that Jesus died as a helpless victim of bad people, that it had nothing to do with you, and that you’re okay the way you are? If that were the case, says the Bible, “then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21).

But Jesus didn’t die for nothing. He died for people, sinful people like you and me. He died because that was God’s way, the only way, to deal with sin and make us right with God. If by God’s grace you believe that Jesus died for your sin, your pride will be crushed. You can’t pretend you’re just fine. You can’t pretend your sin is no big deal. Your sin is a big enough deal that the eternal Son of God suffered hell and death to deal with it! That’s how serious sin is. So humble yourself before the cross of Christ. Repent of your sin. Grieve over it. Hate it. Turn away from it in disgust.

But don’t stop there. Don’t just wallow in sorrow over what your sin cost Jesus. Be dismayed at your own sin, but then be delighted in God’s love. Remember, nobody took Jesus life from him. He laid it down of his own accord. Your sin is bad enough to need such a sacrifice, true enough; but don’t forget, God’s love is great enough that he chose to offer such a sacrifice. And that’s where God wants our main focus to be: not on the badness of our sin, but on the greatness of his love.

Jesus chose to lay down his life out of love: love for us and love for his Father. We needed that sacrifice, the Father wanted that sacrifice, and so Jesus offered that sacrifice. He died for our good and for God’s glory. Oh, what a precious sacrifice, to clear filthy sinners and honor a holy God at the same time! Oh, what a loving Savior, to obey his Father so completely and to suffer for us so unselfishly.

What a horrible thing sin must be, that only the agony of God’s Son could deal with it. But what a loving Savior Jesus must be, that he willingly offered such a sacrifice! What a privilege to belong to such a Savior! What a joy to be able to say with the apostle Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Can you say that? Have you put your faith in Jesus? If not, then do so today. Believe that his sacrifice makes you right with God. Trust his love. Rejoice in him. Praise him. Glory in him. Delight in the way the Father has glorified his Son and himself in saving you. Worship the Lord with awe and amazement.

Jesus went to the cross because of love, and strange as it may sound, he also went because of joy. If you read in the Bible about Jesus’ torture and death, or if you watch Mel Gibson’s graphic movie about it, it may appear terribly grim, not joyful. But Jesus went through all that for the sake of joy. The Bible says that “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus gets so much joy out of bringing joy to his heavenly Father, and Jesus gets so much joy out of bring joy to his people, that he went to the cross. He now reigns in triumphant joy at the Father’s right hand, having secured the salvation of all who trust him. He and his Father delight in each other, and we can share in that delight and enjoy our Master’s joy. As the Bible says, “You believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.