It has been several years, but I do vaguely recall going to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. I personally had no desire to go, but some zealously thoughtful person had assumed that his friends would naturally want to go see the film shortly after its release and presumptively bought tickets to the show for me and some other of my close compadres. We went (since we were then financially obligated), and we experienced what was likely a common experience for those who went to see the movie, namely the gasps, the turning away of heads, the silent sobbing, the wails, and the somber departure from the theater. We had all witnessed the same things–a man flogged in excruciatingly gory detail, and we left as all did–utterly speechless.
If I recall that night correctly, it was quite a while before any of us dared to offer any commentary on the movie. It were as though we felt that we were obligated to keep silent after the film though the man in the movie was certainly not Jesus, and the movie was created and directed by a man who is unabashedly Catholic. Yet after the obligatory silence was lifted, a common thought about the message behind the story presented in the movie was, “So what?” Sure, the movie did what I believed it aimed to do, namely present the sufferings of a man in such a vivid and unapologetic way so as to drive its onlookers to deep pity and sorrow, but for what reason? The movie gave no explanation for the man’s sufferings, save it came through the betrayal one Judas Iscariot, yet in the context of the movie his suffering was terrible and pointless.
And yet when we turn to the Source behind the Man who was portrayed in the movie (whether rightly or wrongly–with a strong bent toward wrongly), namely the Gospels, we scarcely find the vivid details that drove the visuals of the movie. Yes, we find a Man beaten and scourged, a Man on whom was placed a crown of thorns, and a Man who was nailed to a tree, yet when we turn the Gospels, there is, in Luke for example, scarcely half a chapter dedicated to the description of Christ’s torture and execution. And despite this, a two-hour movie is made concerning this half-a-chapter, more of the details coming from archaeology and scientific calculations than from the pages of Holy Scripture.
Therefore, it is little surprise that where Gospels do not leave the “So what?” question unanswered, The Passion of the Christ does, for it has trumped the theological significance of the Cross for the sake of an emotional response. And evangelical Christianity has not lingered far behind–it being more interested in bringing tears to people’s eyes so that it might sway some to walk an aisle rather than looking upon what Christ did on the cross as his Preordained Work rather than his unfortunate end.
And this is not to say that we should not feel deeply when we think upon our Lord upon the Cross. We who are in Christ should feel deeply the suffering of our Lord and our great debt that brought it to pass. We should be called to remembrance every time we are tempted and lured to sin, that it was because of that our Lord suffered. And yet we often forget that Easter is a celebration for those us who are in Christ, not an evangelistic guilt-trip to those who are outside of Christ. We are called to remember Easter as the time when our King marched triumphantly to the Cross, bearing our iniquities and our shame upon himself thereby redeeming us from sin and death so that we might worship and serve him forever in renewed splendor. Yes, the Cross happened (and praise God it did!), but Jesus Christ is no longer upon that Cross, nor is he in the tomb, but he now is at the right hand of God, ruling and reigning over his creation and interceding for his people. “It is finished!” is the proclamation of the Cross, and it is a cause for remembrance to us who have believed and an invitation to those who have yet to believe to pause upon their sin and who will be its bearer.
Therefore when the apostle Paul recalls the Cross, he says in Galatians 6 that it gives him cause not to boast in anything else, not because the apostle could never suffer as greatly as his Lord did (which is true), but because the work of the Cross removes all boasting in the Christian. For the apostle, in accord with the other authors of the New Testament, does not look upon the Cross as the unfortunate sufferings of a prophet but as the carefully planned Work of the God of the universe. Fallen men need a Redeemer to live, and the Cross is the price of that redemption. Yes, it is horrible to think that the God of the universe was spat upon, beaten, and pierced, but more than that, it is glorious to think that God had decreed from the beginning that that event would take place. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” was not first proclaimed by John the Baptist, but it was heralded as early as Genesis 3 and in the prophetic words of Abraham, “God will provide for himself the Lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8). The blood of Christ is the covering for all of God’s saints, not merely those who followed the death of Christ, because the Cross was always to be the Path of the Messiah and the purchase price of his people (cf. Ps. 22; Is. 53, et al).
Therefore, Christian, Easter is for you. It is a time of great rejoicing because the Passover Lamb’s blood has been spread upon your door post. It is a time of great rejoicing because the tomb is empty. It is a time of great rejoicing because the Son who died is now pleading his blood on your behalf. And it is a time of great rejoicing because, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rm. 8:32). How indeed! And for those who have not yet believed, Easter is a time of great terror. For if the innocent and perfect God of the universe must have suffered in such a way to bear the sins of his people, what punishment awaits you who neglect so great a salvation? If Christ did not bear your sins upon the Cross, who must bear them? If God is indeed just (which is utterly proved in the Cross), you will bear your sin at his hand. Therefore there is hope for you in the Cross, and not in that you are moved emotionally by the sufferings of a Man some two thousand years ago, but in that you believe in him who suffered, and repent from your worldliness. For those who have been crucified with Christ have also been crucified to the world, and any who love the world do not possess the love of the Father (cf. Gal. 6:14; 1Jn. 2:15). Therefore, abhor the world, love God, believe in Jesus whom he sent, and rejoice this Easter in him who bore your judgment. Amen.