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Two Pastoral Letters About ‘The Passion of Christ.’ Part 1

Category Articles
Date April 22, 2004

Ian Hamilton, the pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church in England, and William Harrell, the pastor of the Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia are old friends. Both adopt the Scottish tradition of writing a monthly letter to their congregations, and independently of one another the following were the letters they wrote in the past weeks on "The Passion of Christ" to their respective congregations. There is still widespread reaction and discussion of this movie all over the world. When it will appear in video form it is going to be around for many years, and so we do not hesitate to publish the thoughtful response of these two ministers to the film.


I’m probably not the best person to write about "The Passion of the Christ." For one thing, I’ve not seen the film! For another, seeing one film with my wife in the past 24 years does not exactly equip me to be a film critic! However, on the premise that I don’t need to die to preach about death, or to lie in order to preach about lying, I feel reasonably comfortable about commenting on a film I have never seen, so here goes.

Mel Gibson’s blockbuster is being acclaimed as "an artistic tour de force," and it may well be. It is being hailed as the best evangelistic opportunity evangelicals have been presented with in decades, and in God’s sovereign providence it may turn out so. Why then am I deeply hesitant about the film and its "Christian" message? For a number of reasons:


First, nowhere does the Bible give us any hint of Christ’s physical likeness, nor of any other biblical character for that matter! Why is the Bible silent about Jesus’ physical appearance – except for Isaiah’s prophetic comment, "his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness" (Isaiah 52:14) – and the physical appearance of other characters? Surely one compelling reason is that how a person "looks" is of no ultimate consequence. Our Saviour was born "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3), and that sinful flesh was broken, sin-scarred humanity. He looked just like us (though, unlike us, he was sinless). But what the Bible highlights is his identity, he is the Son of God made man, and his godly character, he was "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners," God’s "gentle and humble in heart", obedient Servant, not his looks. His significance did not lie in his appearance, but in his identity and mission. Jesus Christ stands in absolute contradiction to the sinful superficiality of a world that is obsessed with "outward appearance." People are valued in our sad world by how they look (slim, not fat; tall, not short; beautiful, not ugly). The whole emphasis of our Saviour’s life is the beauty of his godly character, not the beauty of his physical appearance. There is no physical likeness of Christ pictured, because true dignity rests in who you are, not in what you look like. True beauty, as Peter reminds Christian wives (and all women and men), is "the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight." Images and pictures, physical and mental, have the capacity to mislead and confuse.


Second, the film is little more than a modern (and exceedingly violent) re-working of the medieval passion play. In the tragedy that was pre-Reformation Christianity, the Church portrayed the physical sufferings of Christ as the essence of the faith; the physical fact of his sufferings and not the spiritual and Biblical significance of his sufferings, was the supreme focus of Christian meditation. This led to a form of the "imitatio Christi" that concentrated on the flagellation of the body and not the true mortification of the flesh, by the Spirit (Romans 8:13). To present a picture of a suffering Christ, and not explain that in his sufferings he was bearing the holy wrath of God on human sin, is to present "another gospel," a gospel that is no "good news" at all. It might make for good cinema, but it emasculates the gospel of its saving significance. Such a comment may seem a little over the top. By calling his film, "The Passion of the Christ," however, Mr. Gibson purports to set before us the "sufferings" of Christ, and the sufferings of Christ’s passion are the God-inflicted stripes that our covenant Head experienced and endured in our place. Salvation does not come to sinners by them being moved by evocative images of undeserved and bravely borne suffering; it comes when the wonder of God’s grace and love in the substitutionary sufferings of Christ, floods our souls and drives us to seek mercy and pardon from God in his Son Jesus Christ.


Third, the Bible tells us that "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). Some of the reviews of the film by Christians have, as a result, deeply saddened me. Some say the film was the most moving spiritual experience of their lives! What does that say about the preaching of God’s word, the ordained means of grace, they have heard for many years? What does it say about the worship of the saints on the Lord’s day that they have shared in for many years? The question that rises in my mind is this: what is a spiritual experience? Many young people think they are in love because their hormones are deeply stirred – but true love is infinitely more than stirred hormones! The fact that we can confuse the two is one reason why there are so many relational and marital disasters. I think the same is probably true in the spiritual realm. A true "spiritual experience," is an experience of the Holy Spirit, whose great office is to magnify Christ as Saviour and Lord. By becoming excited about "pictures," evangelical Christians are reverting to medievalism. God has given us two wonderful pictures of the gospel, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When explained by the word, these pictures excite and nourish faith.

I have little doubt that God will use this film to touch some lives, perhaps even savingly. That does not mean it is a heaven-sent evangelistic tool. That God used Balaam’s donkey to speak his word, or uses Arminian preaching to awaken and save sinners, does not mean, surely, that we should magnify donkeys or become Arminians! It simply means that God is merciful to sinners and uses, so the Bible tells us, even the wrath of man to praise him. Better, far better, to read the Book than watch the film! Better, far better, to preach the word in the power of the Spirit, than block-book cinemas to stir emotions.

Mel Gibson has produced a fine apology for medieval Romanism (personally, he wants a return to the Latin rite). Thankfully, in God’s great love and mercy, the Reformation recovered the true saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel does not ask us to remember the physical sufferings of Christ as such. It tells us that in our place, and for our sake, God’s own Son experienced and exhausted the awful and righteous judgement of God that our sins deserved – and then rose in triumph over sin, death and hell, God’s "Christus Victor." The demonstrations accusing the film of anti-Semitism have missed the heart of the gospel message: "Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas for money. Not the Jews for envy. Not Pilate for fear. But the Father for love. The Bible’s message could not be clearer: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a propitiation for our sins."

Ian Hamilton

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