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Cultural buzz around ‘Passion of The Christ’ sheds light on unchanging meaning of Easter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–More than any in recent history, this Easter season is especially filled with interest in the cross of Christ, and evangelicals must not allow a premium opportunity to pass by, several Southern Baptist professors noted.

“The Passion of The Christ” has helped pique the interest of millions of otherwise apathetic Americans in regard to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and its implications for mankind. As Easter Sunday approaches, the professors noted that Christians have a responsibility to explain not just the death of their Savior but also His resurrection.

Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said it is important for Christians to remember that though Jesus is being given more press than usual, in many ways there is nothing different about this Easter.

“The culture is facing the same questions that human beings have always faced,” he said in written comments to Baptist Press. “Every unbeliever who will hear our Easter sermons is grappling with a guilty conscience and fear of death.

“With this the case, Easter preaching is dangerous. There is always the temptation to turn the Gospel of the resurrection into the sermonic equivalent of a claymation morality tale — with the empty tomb as the ‘happy ending’ of a tragic story.”

But the Bible makes clear the resurrection of Jesus is both good news and bad news, Moore said. The bad news for an unbelieving world system is that prideful men and women are now subject to the One whom God has proclaimed King of the entire creation. The Good News for believers is that the empty tomb was the world-shaking “Amen” of God to all the promises He has made.

While preaching the Easter story, Moore added, Christians must not do so in a way that makes people feel sorry for Jesus.

“The issue is not to create pity for Jesus for His sufferings,” Moore said. “Instead, we must herald the triumph of Jesus over the condemnation of the world and the reign of death. We must shake ourselves from the annual familiarity of the Easter season and shout the truth that a hole in the ground in the Middle East is empty. And that’s good news for death-deserving rebels like us.”

Rick Durst, vice president of academic affairs and professor of historical theology at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary near San Francisco, told Baptist Press that The Passion has put the meaning of Easter back on the front page of the world’s attention, and the opportunity for believers is like what happened at the University of Hawaii several years ago.

“Hawaii Baptist collegiate minister Jon Lathrop was standing outside the student commons listening to a street preacher enthusiastically calling students to repent and trust Christ,” Durst recounted. “‘I wonder if this is effective at all?’ pondered Lathrop. Immediately, a student to his left asked, ‘Do you think there is any truth to what he is saying?’ Jon answered, ‘Yes, I do think there is truth in what he is saying. Let’s get some coffee and talk about it.’

“This Easter, Baptists and believers alike should be attentive and answering to the many who are asking, ‘Do you think there is any truth to the Mel Gibson movie?'” Durst said.

Among other comments from professors:

— “Unfortunately, Easter has, in recent years, become increasingly secularized. Like Christmas, this holiday has been commercially standardized and serves as an occasion for more buying and selling,” said Malcolm Yarnell, assistant dean for theological studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. “Fortunately, however, for many people, Easter 2004 is different. Rather than focusing on eggs and bunnies, Americans have had their minds turned toward the cross.

“For some people, their interest in the Gospel is because God has used the movie, The Passion, to cryptically pronounce the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For others, God has used other means to introduce His grace.” Yarnell recounted that his neighbors across the street “have started attending [church] with us. Neither of our families has seen the movie. We have simply witnessed of Christ and tried to be good neighbors. Christians do not have to wait for a movie to share the Gospel.”

— Chuck Quarles, associate professor of New Testament and Greek at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, recounted, “During a discussion about the Passion film, a local Jewish rabbi mused, ‘I wish that the film had placed more emphasis on the resurrection. I have always respected Christianity as an Easter faith that looks beyond the cross to the empty tomb. It seems to me that the empty tomb is the real focal point of the Christian hope.’”

Quarles said the rabbi’s words echo the message of another Jewish rabbi two millennia ago, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). “American filmgoers have a new appreciation of Jesus as a crucified victim,” Quarles said in his comments to Baptist Press. “We now have an unprecedented opportunity to present Christ as the Resurrected Victor.”

— “This Easter, more than ever, we are reminded of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ in our behalf. He died and was raised from the dead to give us life,” said Octavio J. Esqueda, assistant professor of administration and foundations of education at Southwestern. “We live not just because He died, but for Him who lives. Jesus’ death provided the direction we need for our lives as 2 Corinthians 5:15 declares, ‘and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.'”

— Scott Swain, assistant professor of theology at SWBTS, said The Passion of The Christ “has sparked discussions in the media, the workplace and on the street corner concerning the reasons for and meaning of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. This Easter season is seeing a new cultural awareness about Christ and His mission, along with conflicting interpretations of His person and work.

“But while some things have changed this Easter season, some will remain the same,” Swain said. “Those whose interest in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ goes beyond sensitivity to the cultural pulse beat will gather on Easter Sunday not to see moving pictures of Jim Caviezel but rather to hear the Good News of a risen Messiah proclaimed from Holy Writ. And, though they may not see Him, their living hope — birthed by a risen Lord and illumined by the light of Scripture — will once again abound with ‘joy inexpressible and full of glory’ (1 Peter 1:8).”

— “Once a person has seen The Passion, he will celebrate Easter with far more awareness of what crucifixion did to Jesus,” said Thor Madsen, interim academic dean at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. “His suffering was unbearable, and yet the historical reality was far worse than an R-rated film could portray. The Passion also helps us to see why, according to Paul, the message of the cross was foolishness to those who are perishing. We would not guess that a crucified man could be the Lord of Glory. Pagans certainly did not do so in Paul’s time, and they would not do so now if criminals were routinely crucified in our public places. But the Holy Spirit empowers us to see that the slain Lamb of God is worthy of all power and praise.”
Compiled by Erin Curry with reporting by Lawrence Smith, Jeff Jones, Brent Thompson & Gary Myers.

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