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The Passion for Christ
by Rev Isaac Ong
(Pastor, Vancouver B-P Church)

Christians, by the broadest definition, are excited about Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. The film portrays the last 12 hours of Christ before His crucifixion. Christian pastors have been most generous with their praises on the Gibson movie. They regard the film as a golden opportunity to evangelize. They also see it as a major moral victory over the anti-Christian movies produced by Hollywood. This article is not a review of the Gibson movie. I have not watched the film, and hence I cannot vouch for its biblical accuracy. By most news reports and reviews that I have read concerning the movie, most preachers — even conservative ones — are quite satisfied that the film is somewhat faithful to the Gospel accounts. Nevertheless, I have some concerns about the movie. Let me tell you why.

It focuses on what men did to Jesus

From the very beginning, the film was clouded by controversy. I may be somewhat cynical, but controversy is not necessarily bad because it generates interest and publicity, and that in turn brings in more viewers. Many critics who oppose The Passion claimed that it was anti-Semitic. One Jewish critic said, "For 2,000 years in Western civilization, four words legitimized, rationalized, and fueled anti-Semitism: ‘The Jews killed Christ.’ For hundreds of years those four words — acted out, spoken out, sermonized out — inspired and legitimized pogroms, inquisitions and expulsions." And he added that The Passion could revive age-old hatred for Jews. But Gibson, by his own admission in a TV interview, removed Matthew 27:25 from his script, "Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children."

For any Christian to claim that it was the Jews who killed Christ is to be seriously mistaken. It is true that it was the Jews who called for our Lord Jesus to be crucified (Mark 15:12-14). It is also true that it was the Romans who put the nails through his hands and feet. But we must never forget that the Son of God was crucified according to the will of God the Father, "The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against His Christ. For of a truth against Thy holy child Jesus, whom Thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counseldetermined before to be done." (Acts 4:26-28).

The people who do not appreciate the sovereign will of God and His immeasurable love for sinful man cannot understand why our Lord had to die. And the purpose of the crucifixion of Christ is sidetracked when the focus is shifted away from what Christ had done for sinners to what sinners did to Him.

Had it been the will of God to fight, our Lord Jesus would have summoned the legions of angels from heaven (Matt. 26:53). We must not forget that man could do nothing to Christ what was not in the divine will of God, "I lay down my life for the sheep. . . . Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father." (John 10:15-18).

The total depravity of man means that all that the Romans and Jews did to Christ, we are all capable of doing. That, it seems, was ably portrayed in The Passion. The good news of salvation, however, is not what sinners had done to him, but what Christ had done for sinners. It is not good enough for you to feel sorry for Jesus, you must know with absolute certainty that Jesus saves you, and judging from the reviews of The Passion, that vital truth is obscured.

It substitutes doctrine with drama

The Passion received an R rating for its violent content. Most reviewers said that the violence was justified to show the extent of suffering inflicted upon our Lord Jesus. Reviewers were also unanimous that the images of blood and gore moved the audience to tears. Undoubtedly, Gibson had succeeded in shocking and rending the hearts of the viewers.

Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, "the medium is the message." By that he means that the form in which a message is presented (on a printed page, by sound or by pictures) will affect the way it is being perceived. And McLuhan contends that the image medium (TV and movies) is mostly an entertainment medium.

Images are powerful because they evoke emotions. Every reasonable person having seen images of a tortured Christ would feel for Him. That is the power of images, but there is a great gap between having emotional empathy as a result of seeing the images and having saving faith, which comes by believing that only Jesus saves.

That is the shortcoming of images, and my reservation is not unfounded. Morris H. Chapman, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote that The Passion lacks "an obvious evangelistic intent." That means that there is something very important that is missing in the film. Was Jesus clearly and unequivocally portrayed as the Saviour? Was Jesus in the movie the Christ of the Bible? Or was Jesus, as Gibson said in his interview on ABC, an example of someone who could "still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule." History has many examples of men giving their lives to save another. But it is only our Lord Jesus who gave His life to save sinners.

The Passion for Christ

We live in an age where images rule supreme. We have to see to believe. In the case ofThe Passion, we have to see to feel. We live in an age when most Christians are not excited about reading the Bible and doing Bible studies, but they are all thrilled about seeing a "Jesus" movie. We live in an age when we have substituted doctrine with drama; we have adulterated evangelism with entertainment, and in this movie, it shows so-called Christians have come to the point where God’s revelation has to be substantiated with man’s reenactments.

The Bible states quite the opposite — faith does not come by seeing, but "by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers about the reality of hell. Abraham replied, "If they hear notMoses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (Luke 16:31).

I think it strange that some preachers regard The Passion as a prelude to spiritual revival. They said the same about the days after 9/11 when churches were packed, and there was an upsurge in things religious. The same could be said about The Passion. The interest generated in the run up to the movie might bring people into church, but — I dare say — only for a while. Personally, I see the Gibson movie as another attempt to make Christianity even more shallow than it already is. I regard this movie as another attempt to present a lesser Christ and a false one.

The focus should not be on the death of Jesus, or who was responsible for putting Him to death; rather the focus should have been who was put to death in the death of Jesus. And Bible-believing Christians would do well to take note that the death of Jesus has salvific value because He is the Christ, the Son of God. It is the nature of the Person who was crucified on the Cross that determines and gives value to His death. It is because Jesus is who He claims to be — the Saviour — that His death is able to accomplish what it does — the saving of souls.

That is the message that the world needs, not a feel-sorry-for-Jesus movie — such as The Passion of the Christ. And what the Christian church desperately needs and must fervently pray for is more love for Christ — a love that is best expressed by the Apostle Paul, "But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ" (Phil. 3:7-8). May that be the desire of every one of us.

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