THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST

or

A PASSION FOR THE GOSPEL?*

 

[* C.W.I. discuss the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's new film.]

 

The following article, written by Howard Fleming and Mike Moore, was published in the "Herald" - a quarterly magazine by "Christian Witness To Israel" (C.W.I.)  where it was presented under the title: "A Passion for the Gospel?"

 

Foreword

 

"In the Herald we do not normally comment on films, but Mel Gibsonís The Passion of the Christ has generated so much controversy in terms of how it views the Jewish people and the responsibility they bore (or bear) for the death of Jesus that we felt it was important to look at it. At the time of writing, the film has been seen by only a select few (including the Pope), but even before its general release more has been written about Gibsonís Passion than about most other Hollywood productions after they hit the silver screen."

 

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The Prologue

 

It has been said that Mel Gibson is usually portrayed in films as a "happy-go-lucky blue-eyed golden boy, with a malicious grin on his handsome face and mischief forever on his mind". Many were therefore surprised that his most recent venture, which he has both funded and directed, details the final hours and crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah. Thankfully, The Passion of the Christ does not depict "the Christ" as a European "blue-eyed golden boy" but as someone who is clearly Jewish and is addressed as "Rabbi" by his followers. Furthermore, all the Jewish characters in the film speak Aramaic and Maia Morgenstern, the actress who plays the mother of Jesus, is herself Jewish. However, long before its release, the film began to be branded as anti-Semitic.

 

People have moulded Jesus into so many likenesses that any portrayal of the last twelve hours of his life is certain to be controversial and to offend various groups of people. However, many of the films dealing with his life and death have not reached a wide enough audience for the reaction to be of any significance. In contrast, The Passion of the Christ will be widely distributed and be seen by many who would normally avoid, or deny, the claims of Christ. Indeed, the film has already been the subject of intense debate, being criticized by some even before they have seen the film production.

 

The Critics

 

The main assault on the film has come from Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and Paula Fredriksen, the spokesperson for a coalition of Roman Catholic and Jewish academics. The Anti-Defamation League is well represented for its work in combating anti-Semitism, but some have felt that Foxman has marginalized himself by certain personal accusations he has made against Mel Gibson. However, it is his wider agenda that should concern us, for he believes that claiming oneís own faith to be "the only valid path to life" is a discredited Christian theology. As such, he represents those for whom political correctness is often more important that truth.

 

Paula Fredriksen is Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University. She is the author of Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, in which she concedes that the Jewish priestly authorities were partly responsible for Jesusí death. However, she has harshly criticized The Passion of the Christ saying, "When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to". Fredriksenís remarks, however, may suggest a wider agenda for she believes that Anti-Semitism has been integral to Christianity, and several of the theologians who consulted with her are strongly opposed to Jewish evangelism.

 

The Producer

 

But where does Mel Gibson stand in relation to all of this? One of the reasons for the controversy surrounding The Passion of the Christ is that Gibson is a "traditionalist Catholic" who opposes the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Amongst those reforms was the document Nostra Aetate (In Our Age), which rejected the notion that Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. One concern of groups opposing The Passion is that the film allegedly reinforces this notion. As Rabbi Eugene Korn (Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League) puts it, "We have ridden into the middle of ideological war between conservative Catholics and Vatican II progressive Catholics." For his part, Mel Gibson rejects any change of anti-Semitism, and it is reported that one of the two glimpses of him in the movie is "when you see his hand placing the stake on Christís palm - thus underlining Gibsonís own guilt for the death of Christ." However, he has admitted that his screenplay was based not so much on the Gospels as on the mystical visions of 19th century nun Anne Catrerine Emmerich, whose reinterpretation of the passion of Christ included many details not found in the Gospels. These details, it is claimed, are the source of much of the anti-semitic content of the original screenplay, if not the final film. Indeed, they prompted the accusation from Fredriksen that the true historical framing of Mr. Gibsonís script is post-medieval Roman Catholic Europe. Ironically, this has led the critical scholars to cry out "Scripture alone" and demand that the final version rids itself of "fictious non-scriptural elements that form an inescapably negative picture of Jewish society and leadership". Sadly, as already noted, their love for Scripture wanes when it comes to Jewish evangelism.

 

But perhaps we need to ask if Mel Gibson set out to make a movie that was historically accurate. Indeed he did! He is quoted as saying of The Passion, "Itís like travelling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred." But the Jewish author David Horowitz, who defends the film, believes that it is an artistic vision and not an attempt to portray the historical Jesus. He says, "It is as close to a religious experience as art can get." But why does he reject Gibsonís own assessment of the project? Because, according to Horowitz, "there is no evidentiary basis for such a portrait, no one can know what the truth is". Here is someone who appears to believe that it is possible to know the historical Jesus. Yet, as a commentator, Horowitz frequently writes "authoritatively" about historical events of which he was not an eyewitness!

 

The Messiah

 

The New Testament, however, was written by those who were witnesses, or had access to eyewitness reports, of the life of Jesus. He was [is] a life that challenges the "wider agendas" of Abraham Foxman, Paula Fredriksen and David Horowitz, for it was dedicated to seeking and saving the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 15: 24 cf. Jeremiah 50: 6). And it was to those "lost sheep" that the Messiah sent his first disciples to preach the message of the kingdom* (Matt 10: 7). Those who oppose Jewish evangelism, on the alleged grounds that it is anti-Semitic, and those who oppose any evangelism, on the grounds that there is no ultimate truth, find themselves opposing the One who claimed to be "the way, the truth and the life".

 

[* See also Matt. 13: 19.]

 

Contrary to what many critics of evangelical Christianity would have us believe, anti-semitism has a history that pre-dates Christianity. It is an evil that needs to be confronted, especially to those of us who claim to understand Godís purposes for the Jewish people. However, as Michael Medved (a film critic and orthodox Jew), has observed, "If there are people in the Jewish community saying Christians have to disregard certain passages in scripture or else they will be accused of anti-Semitism, then thatís Ďa bridge too farí". Yet that is exactly what some expect us to do. For many of them, it is not only the cross of Jesus that causes offence, but also the claims of Jesus.*

 

[* See footnote.]

 

It was a Jewish high priest who asked Jesus if he was the Messiah, the Son of God and it was a gentile, Pilate, who asked him "Are you the king of the Jews?" On both occasions Jesus replied, "Yes, it is as you say." King Messiah has come** and his people need to know, lest they perish.

 

[** See footnote.]

 

Losing the plot

 

Mel Gibson, of course, has his agenda too. His project, funded largely from his own cheque book, appears to be a traditional act of Roman Catholic devotion. Just as medieval kings built cathedrals and commissioned great works of art depicting the crucifixion, a Hollywood superstar is now offering his own substantial contribution. The Passion of the Christ looks to be an artistic tour-de-force, cinema goers will no doubt be deeply moved by the experience of seeing it and the controversy surrounding the movie will be with us for some time to come.

 

However, it is sobering to remember that, in contrast to the explicit bloodiness of Gibsonís film, the Gospel writers are remarkably laconic about Jesusí suffering: "Pilate took Jesus and scourged him"; "the soldiers twisted a crown of thorns and put it on his head"; "they crucified him". The New Testament emphasis is not that Jesus suffered, but that the Messiah suffered; and the glory of the gospel is not simply that the Messiah suffered but that he suffered for us. It is highly unlikely that cinema audiences - Jewish or gentile - who see Gibsonís film, with its grafic violence and Latin and Aramaic dialogue, will hear that authentic message.

 

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NOTES.

* "...it is not only the cross of Jesus that causes offence, but also the claims of Jesus"

 

There are multitudes anti-millennial Christians who are offended at some of "the claims of Jesus." Let us have a look at one instance relative to one of Messiah's claims:-

 

One of the prayers Jesus prayed was: "Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory ...," (John 17: 24).

 

Where was the Messiah when he prayed these words to His heavenly Father?  Was he in heaven or upon this earth?  He was upon this earth - not in heaven as at present, where He is waiting, until He makes the nations His inheritance, and the ends of the earth His possession, (See Psalm 2: 8.). Jesus has promised to return to this earth sometime in the future, to establish His kingdom of righteousness and peace: so say also Ďthe Prophetsí of God:-

 

"At that time gifts will be brought to the Lord Almighty from a people tall and smooth-skinned, from a people feared far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech, whose land is divided by rivers - the gifts will be brought to Mount Zion, the place of the Name of the Lord Almighty," (Isa. 18: 7).

 

Would any be so bold as to suggest that "the place," of which Isaiah is speaking, is anywhere other than where he says it is - "to Mount Zion" - upon this earth?  One of the features of the "new earth," which God will create after the destruction of this earth, is that "there was no longer any sea" (Rev. 21: 1); and since we read that: "All streamsriversí, R.V.] flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place where streams come from, there they return again," (Eccl. 1: 7). We must conclude therefore that Jesusí petition to His heavenly Father was for his disciples to be with him upon this earth and to see His glory.

 

The prophet Daniel reminds us of this , when he writes: "Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High ... and all rulers will worship and obey him," (Dan. 7: 27).

 

Godís prophet Zechariah prophecies to the same effect:

"... the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, they will have no rain," (Zech. 14: 16, 17).

 

The prophet Ezekiel says:

 

"For on my holy mountain, the high mountain of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord, there in the land the entire house of Israel will serve me, and there I will accept them," (Ezek. 20: 40).

 

The prophet Hosea prophecies concerning Israel, and says:-

"... they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me. Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days - [i.e., after two thousand years, (2 Pet. 3: 8)] - he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence," (Hosea 5: 15- 6: 2).

 

The prophet Zephaniah informs us that: "The nations on every shore - [therefore it will be upon this earth] - will worship him, everyone in his own land," (Zeph. 2: 11).

 

The prophet Malachi, describing the blessing which will come from the Lord upon Israel, throws out a challenge to them by saying:-

 

"... ĎYou are under a curse - the whole nation of you - because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,í says the Lord Almighty, Ďand see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouiring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,í says the Lord Almighty. Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,í says the Lord Almighty," (Mal. 3: 9-12).

 

After His resurrection, Jesus said to His disciples: "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms," (Luke 24: 44). Therefore, all the above prophecies, including Isaiah 18: 7, have yet to be fulfilled; and the scriptures, which cannot be broken, tell us that they will be fulfilled during the millennium, after the "First Resurrection". Rev. 20: 5.

 

** "King Messiah has come ..."

 

Every Jew and Christian should know what the word "Messiah" means. The following definition is from Blackís Bible Dictionary:-

 

"Messiah, the Christ; the looked-for king and deliverer of the Hebrews.  The root meaning of the word is Ďanointed one.í  It recalls the ancient Hebrew custom of anointing a person who was being set apart for high office, especially a priest or a ruler. In the New Testament it becomes Ďthe Christ,í the exact Greek equivalent of the Hebrew ĎMessiahí."

 

The promise of God to Abraham, that in him and his descendants all the world was to be blest (Gen. 12:1-3, 15: 1 f.), created the expectancy - [an expectancy many of the regenerate members of God's church today would appear not to have] - of a kingdom of God on earth.  The Old Testament is the story of the growth of this expectancy, and of changes in the way it was understood.  One form limited the promise to the physical line of Abraham: "the chosen people" were "the sons of Abraham."  With the emergence of Saul as the first Hebrew king, the national and political conception was quickened (1 Sam. 8: 1- 12: 25).  The brilliance of the reign of David, Saulís successor, and his own personal character, set the pattern of Messianic thought for later centuries (2 Sam. 7: 1-29). The conviction grew that the kingdom of God, in the Abrahamic covenant would be consummated, would be a kingdom like that of David, and its ruler would be "a son of David," a king like David, only greater (Isa. 9: 2-7; Jer. 23: 5-8; Ezek. 34: 20-31; cf. Ps. 89: 3, 19-37; 132: 1-18).

 

The checkered history of the kingdom, especially after the division that followed the death of Davidís son and successor Solomon (1 Kings 11: 9-12: 20), and still later the destruction of the separatist Northern kingdom by the Assyrians under Shalmaneser (2 Kings 17: 1-6), which left the loyalist Southern Kingdom, or Judah, to carry on alone the Davidic tradition and hope (17:18), threw into prominence the idea of a DelivererIf the promise of Abraham were to be fulfilled, someone must deliver the people of God from their enemies.  Hence the important meaning of the word "save" in the Old Testament notably by the Psalms (28: 9; 69: 35; 72: 13 f; 106: 47), and in Isaiah (25: 9; 33: 22; 35: 4; 37: 20; 63: 1-5; cf. Jer. 42: 11).  Often the "salvation" or "deliverance" desired and promised was from "enemies" especially from threatening world powers.  A person who could thus "save" or "deliver" would be king indeed.  Sometimes only God Himself would suffice; otherwise it must be "the anointed one" of God, a veritable [true] Messiah.  Psalm 72 is believed by many to express the sentiments of the group that supported the reformations of the young king Josiah (2 Kings 22: 1-23; 25); but in due time the psalm was used and cherished, as it still is, for its Messianic significance.

 

With the great prophets, however, there came a different reading of the promise to Abraham.  An occasional prophet retained the national outlook (see Obadiah; Nahum; Habakkuk), but the idea grew that if God is not merely the God of Israel but the God of the whole earth, then his concern was not limited to one people, but extended to all mankind.  The collapse of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. and the virtual destruction of the Jewish state, gave force to the message already being delivered by Jeremiah, that the promise to Abraham would be fulfilled not in any political organization but in a truly religious "community," a brotherhood broader than race, between whom and God existed "a new covenant written on the heart," and open to every man (Jer. 31: 31-33)...

 

The more spiritual and universal concept, however, still had its advocates.  It obviously inspired the writing of the book of Jonah (300 B.C.).  In the second half of the book of Zechariah (chapters 9-14) ... the emphasis is markedly on a national restoration, and on Jerusalem as the centre of the world (chapter 14); but there is no reference to the Law or to the Temple (except perhaps 14: 20).  On the other hand, the section contains the words quoted at Jesusí entry into Jerusalem: "Thy king cometh unto thee," etc. (9: 9 cf. Matt. 21: 5). But in the next verse we are told that this king will create a universal peace, and that "his dominion shall be from sea to sea" (cf. Psalm 72).  In the still later book of Daniel (about 167 B.C.) is the teaching about "an everlasting kingdom" to be granted to One called "a Son of Man," a kingdom embracing "all peoples and languages" (7: 13, 14)..."

 

"The King Messiah has come" to suffer and die for the sins of the people; and "the King Messiah" will again come to reward His faithful servants, and establish His Millennial Kingdom of righteousness and peace upon this earth. Rev. 22: 12.

 

"Great and marvellous are your deeds,

Lord God Almighty.

Just and true are your ways,

King of all ages.

Who will not fear you O Lord,

and bring glory to your name?

For you alone are holy,

ALL NATIONS WILL [future tense] COME

AND WORSHIP BEFORE YOU,

FOR YOUR RIGHTEOUS ACTS HAVE BEEN REVEALED."

(Rev. 15: 3, 4).

 

The Jews are waiting today for their true Messiah and they will soon see Him in all His glory.  What they refuse to believe is that Jesus of Nazarath - their true Messiah - came two thousand years ago to purchase eternal salvation by His death at Calvary.

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THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST*

 

[* On April 6, 2004 the following article was published in the "Thought for the Week" section of a local newspaper and entitled: "The Passion Of The Christ".]

 

Have you read J. R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings?  More than likely not, but you may have seen the film.

 

Or what about Margaret Mitchell's book Gone with the Wind, or Louis De Bernieres's Captain Corelli's Mandolin?  No!  How about Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, John Gresham's The Firm, Tricia Stewart's Calendar Girl or Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book?  Maybe not, but chances are though you will have seen the film before you read the book.

 

Many years ago when Cecil B DeMille was making great biblical epics, like The Ten Commandments, some people when asked had they ever read the bible? would reply, 'no but I've seen the film!'

 

Once again, in The Passion of the Christ there is an opportunity for us to see something of what 'The Book', is talking about.  How do you portray crucifixion in any other way than it being horrific?

 

It is one of those things that you cannot dress up and make it look like it wasn't as bad as it was.

 

I haven't seen the film yet, but I intend to.  I've read 'the Book', and the event it tries to present and it doesn't make pleasant reading, so I know that the film is going to be hard to watch as well.

 

It's been described in some film critic circles as a 'horror' movie.  Maybe that should be horrific.  Anybody who has read anything about crucifixion will know that it was the most barbaric of deaths that the Romans reserved for the worst of criminals.  There was blood, pain and cries of agony so intense that we cannot even begin to imagine, so why should we think that the film will show anything less.

 

The question that we should ask as we watch it or even read the story and not bother going to the film, is not 'how?' it was done and whether Hollywood has gone over the top or not in visualising it, but 'why?'

 

Why should one human being allow himself to be put through such an ordeal?  Why should He be put to death, in such a way and why did he need to die in the first place?  We need to ask the question why? because the answer will tell us the real reason for the Passion of the Christ.

 

And to get the answer, we need to go back to the original script rather than the screenplay.  Let it, in it's own words explain why.

 

"He loved me and gave himself for me," Galations 2: 20.

 

"This is real love.  It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son, as a sacrifice to take away our sin," 1 John 4: 10.

 

"But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ," Ephesians 2: 13.

 

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life," John 3; 16.

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FOOTNOTES

 

I've also 'read the Book and it doesn't make pleasant reading'; and furthermore, 'the Book' has a number of things to say about regenerate believers which they may not like to hear, believe, or speak about.  Here are four selected texts which I have chosen to comment upon, to balance the record of divine truth:-

 

1. "Command those who are rich in this present world - [or 'age', see Greek text or alternative reading in the R.V.] - not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life - [i.e., as the context indicates, life during 'the coming age'.] - that is truly life," 1Timothy 6: 17-19.

 

Are Christians being taught today to obey this command?  Many of those, who dress up in long robes and 'dog collars', have time only for smooth words; they habitually shun God's conditional promises, and are afraid: "to proclaim to you the whole will of God,?" (Acts 20:27).

 

2. It is written: "Their teaching will spread like gangrene ... They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some," (2 Timothy 2: 17, 18).

 

This popular deceit is frequently practiced at funeral services, where we are told that at the time of death a believer supposedly enters into the presence of God in heaven!   This teaching erroneously implies: "that the resurrection has already taken place!"  One by one, at the time of death, believers supposedly ascend into heaven!  The time of death has substituted that of resurrection; and this false teaching negatives the importance of the "First Resurrection".  Duped teachers, "destroy the faith of someĒ who rightly believe in a millennial kingdom which the Lord will establish between the "First" and general resurrection of the dead. (Rev. 20: 4-6, 13).

 

3. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race. - [i.e., to win the "crown" and the "prize" in the "age to come" - not to obtain the "gift of God" which is  eternal life, (Rom.6; 23).] - Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, WHO FOR THE JOY SET BEFORE HIM ENDURED THE CROSS, SCORNING ITS SHAME, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart," (Hebrews 12: 1-3).

 

In the above 'Thought for the Week,' the author has rightly pointed out the sufferings of Christ upon the cross for the eternal salvation of all regenerate believers.  But in the above texts 'The Book,' speaks of another reason for those terrible cruel sufferings which our Lord Jesus endured upon the cross - it was "FOR THE JOY SET BEFORE HIM".  And part of that 'joy' will be an inheritance in the Kingdom of God for fellow-sufferers: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5: 10).

 

Presently Christ is seated at His Father's right hand in heaven waiting for the appointed time to install Him -  the rightful King and Heir of Zion.  God says: "I will make the nations your inheritance, and the ends of the earth your possessionYou will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery," (Psalm 2: 8).

 

4.  And so it is not surprising to find numerous conditional promises to believers written in 'The Book':-

 

"If we died with him,

we will also live with him;

IF WE ENDURE,

WE WILL ALSO REIGN WITH HIM.

If we disown him,

he will also disown us;

if we are faithless,

he will remain faithful,

for he cannot disown himself,"

(2 Timothy 2: 11.)

 

Christ cannot disown himself by rewarding believers who fail to fulfil these conditions by allowing them, on the basis of grace (i.e., unmerited favour) and bare faith alone, to rise at the first resurrection and inherit the kingdom.  Many believers may think the contrary but 'the Book' states otherwise! (Eph. 5: 3-5; Jas. 1: 12; 1 Pet. 3: 9; Rev. 3: 11; 2: 10; 20: 6, etc.)

 

Christians need a passion for suffering for righteousness sake; and the only way to experience that, is to be actively righteous themselves; and the only way to attain a genuine hope, based on the teaching of the Word of God, of being "considered worthy of that age" (Luke 20: 34) and an inheritance in that kingdom, is by strict compliance to Christ's commands!

 

"I am coming soon!  My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done," (Rev. 22: 19). 

 

"Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favouritism," (Col. 3: 25).  

 

"My fellow-prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas.  ... Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings.  THESE ARE THE ONLY JEWS AMONG MY FELLOW-WORKERS FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD ..." (Col. 4: 10,11).  

 

Are circumstances any different among the people of God today?  No.  Only a few are prepared to proclaim the whole will of God!

 

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