JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–As if there hasn’t been enough ink spilled on the subject, forgive my humble effort at engaging the cultural phenomenon known as, “The Passion of The Christ.” Mel Gibson’s controversial film is now in theaters after months of media attention and Christian curiosity that have made the movie one of the most anticipated works to come to the big screen in years.
More precisely, I wish to address a narrower question — one that has been prompted by Gibson’s movie — “Who killed Jesus?” The question has been asked repeatedly in recent weeks, even garnering the cover story in the Feb. 16 issue of Newsweek. The question is prompted by concerns from some Jews that The Passion may foment anti-Semitism because of Gibson’s attempt to retell the Gospel accounts, which report the historic fact that first-century Jewish leaders were at the center of Jesus’ crucifixion.
To be sure, Jews have suffered persecution from Christians — more accurately, those who claimed to be Christian — who assert that the Jewish race bears a particular burden for Jesus’ death.
In his new book, “The Passion of Jesus Christ: Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die” (Crossway), John Piper eloquently answers this anti-Semitism: “It is not Christian to humiliate or scorn or despise or persecute with prideful putdowns, or pogroms, or crusades, or concentration camps. These were and are, very simply and horribly, disobedience to Jesus Christ. Unlike many of His followers, He prayed from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34).”
Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, goes on to write, “The denial that Christ was crucified is like the denial of the Holocaust. For some it’s simply too horrific to affirm. For others it’s an elaborate conspiracy to coerce religious sympathy. But the deniers live in a historical dream world. Jesus Christ suffered unspeakably and died. So did Jews.”
The historical fact is that the terrible execution of Jesus was a conspiracy of human agents – both Jewish and gentile – who sought our Savior’s death for various illicit reasons. Nevertheless, there’s no getting away from the reality that the Jews cried out, “Crucify Him!” in response to Pontius Pilate’s question, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:22).
Still, the theological reality is that I am as responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion as is Caiaphas, the high priest, or any other Jew who declared, “His blood shall be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25), and I am as responsible as Pilate and his brutal Roman executioners.
Every Christian knows — and it is a basic element necessary for genuine conversion — that it is my sins that put Jesus on the cross. This foundational truth of Christian doctrine has been a central subject of hymnists throughout Christian history. Charles Wesley’s “And Can it Be?” (1738) — my favorite hymn — declares in bewilderment:
“And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”
In a poignantly powerful symbol of the truth of all of humanity’s culpability, Gibson plays a cameo role in the film he has bankrolled, produced and directed. His hand holds the nail that was driven into Jesus on the cross. In this way, Gibson has helped us all understand our role in the death of God’s only Son.
Yes, I put Jesus on the cross. But the staggering theological truth is that in addition to His willingness to go to that dreaded tree (Matthew 26:36-46), Jesus’ crucifixion was part of God’s decree before the dawn of creation that the Son should make this sacrifice (1 Peter 1:18-21; Revelation 13:8). Therefore, it would not be inaccurate to say, God, the Father, killed God, the Son.
The Apostle Peter declared at Pentecost that Jesus “was delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23) and in his second sermon Peter further underscores the divine role: “But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18). Later, Christians in Jerusalem in their prayer after Peter’s release from prison acknowledge their understanding of the Father’s role in Jesus’ death by noting that the human agents of His crucifixion did “whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:28). Further, in the prophet Isaiah’s prediction of the Suffering Servant, he writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (53:10).
Jesus’ death did not take God by surprise — it was part of His plan to save sinners.
Not having yet had the opportunity to see The Passion of The Christ, I’m not able to comment on its biblical accuracy. Virtually every evangelical leader who has seen the movie commends Gibson for following the Gospel accounts faithfully, while allowing little of his devotion to Catholic dogma to find its way into the film.
Still, evangelicals should be careful not to make more of the movie than can be reasonably expected from a dramatic depiction of Christ’s death, nor should we be open to any compromise of the core Gospel message. For example, Gibson told Christianity Today, “Jesus could have pricked his finger, but he didn’t; he went all the way.” Is this accurate — could Jesus have accomplished His work as Savior by simply expending a drop of blood?
The biblical witness is clear — Jesus’ death was necessary to conquer the grave for sinners. Because Jesus was resurrected from the dead (which, reportedly, is only briefly addressed in The Passion), our resurrection is possible. “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).
With a deep sense of trepidation and gratitude, I look forward to seeing Mel Gibson’s portrayal of my Savior’s death, knowing that in His death and resurrection my salvation was accomplished because it was the Father’s good pleasure. “Amazing love,” indeed!
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at:www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.