The purpose of the Passion

by Andrew Lansdown

Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ opens with Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is here, the historical records agree, that Jesus suffered unspeakable anguish as He contemplated His imminent death.

In Mel’s version of events, Satan comes to taunt and test Jesus in the garden. Like many other scenes in the film, this scene has no historical basis. Such a thing could perhaps have happened, but the eyewitnesses make no mention of it. (From this scene onwards, viewers should be alert to the fact that they are watching not an historian’s account of the Passion, but a filmmaker’s account. While much of the film “is as it was”, much of it is as Mel imagines.)

Appearing as a pale, serene young man, Satan attempts to make Jesus doubt His mission. He calmly tells Jesus that it is impossible for one man to carry the sins of the whole world. The burden is too heavy, he insists.

This scene may not be historically factual, but it is dramatically effective. It serves to focus the film and gives a rationale for all that is to follow. Thanks (ironically!) to Satan’s comments to Jesus in the garden, viewers gain an understanding of why Jesus is about to suffer so terribly. He is not some bewildered man who is unwittingly subjected to a monstrous injustice. His suffering and death have a purpose – a purpose of which He is fully conscious and to which He is fully committed. He has deliberately chosen to suffer and die for our sake, to make amends to God for our sins. He is not a victim, but a saviour.

The focus of the film in this regard is perfectly in keeping with the focus of Jesus Himself, as recorded and explained in the Bible. The prophets and apostles who were inspired to write the sacred texts of the Bible all agree that Jesus came to take away our sins by offering Himself as a sacrifice to God on our behalf.

“Jesus Christ laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16)The film opens with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, who foretold the fact and the function of Christ’s sufferings in these terms: “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

Jesus Himself claimed that He came to earth to save sinners by dying on their behalf and in their place. Using a title He often ascribed to Himself, Jesus said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). By His death, Jesus paid the price to set us free from guilt and judgment.

During the Last Supper Jesus offered a cup to His disciples, and said, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28). By His death, Jesus established a New Covenant, a New Agreement, between God and mankind. According to this agreement, God is able to forgive our sins because Christ died for them, and He will forgive them if and when we receive Christ by faith as our Lord and Saviour.

The apostles whom Christ appointed to speak on His behalf after His resurrection and ascension also agree that the purpose of Christ’s death was to make amends to God for our sins. They state, for example: “Jesus Christ laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16). “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). “He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He “has appeared once for all … to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). He is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). He “suffered … to make the people holy through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). “You were redeemed … with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18). He “loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). He “gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness” (Titus 2:9). “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

In summary, the Bible teaches that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”, and to accomplish this purpose He “gave himself as a ransom for all men” (1 Timothy 1:15 & 2:6). But how can this be? How can one person die for all people? Perhaps Mel’s Satan has a point when he claims that it is impossible for one man to carry the sins of the world. For how can a single man possibly bear the burden of every man, woman and child? How can one shoulder the burdens of billions?

The answer to this question lies in the nature of Jesus. The Bible teaches that Jesus is not just a man. Yes, He is human – but He is more. He is also divine. Jesus often spoke of Himself as “the Son of God”. This title reveals that He shares the same nature and being as the other two Persons of the one Godhead, the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Like God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, God the Son is eternal, infinite and omnipotent in nature.

Jesus is both human and divine. In Him, man and God meet and meld. Consequently, when He suffered and died on the cross, He did so as both God and man. And this is why He could bear the sins of the whole world. As God, He had an infinite capacity to carry our sins and to suffer our punishment.

Thanks to His humanity, Jesus could truly represent everyone. Thanks to His deity, Jesus could truly bear the sins of everyone. And that is exactly what He did on the cross outside Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

When we appreciate that Jesus died on the cross as our representative and our sin-bearer, His suffering takes on a whole new meaning. It suddenly becomes more personal and more terrible. He suffered for me – and for you! It is this sobering reality that The Passion of the Christ seeks to bring home to the viewer.

It is unfortunate that the film exaggerates the physical suffering of Christ. Mel Gibson has added violence that has no historical basis. There is no reason to believe, for example, that after His arrest in the garden Jesus was hurled over a retaining wall to fall several metres before being jarred to a halt by the chains with which He was bound. There is no reason to believe that after He had been flogged on His back He was turned over and flogged on His chest and stomach. There is no reason to believe that His arm was wrenched from its socket by a soldier in order to stretch His free hand to a predetermined nailing-spot on the cross. And there is no reason to believe that the cross was flipped over while He was nailed to it, so that He smashed face-first into the ground with the weight of the cross upon Him. Such fanciful exaggerations are doubly unfortunate because they are unnecessary. The violence Christ suffered was in reality so brutal that there is no need to embellish it.

Nonetheless, exaggerations aside, the film’s depiction of Christ’s suffering is essentially correct. The betrayals, the mock trials, the ridicule, the flogging, the beatings, the crown of thorns, the crucifixion – all these are brutalities that He actually endured.

It is sobering to realise that Jesus endured these brutalities voluntarily for love of us. Indeed, we are the purpose of the Passion. “He died for us so that … we may live together with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10). And we will live together with Him, now and in eternity, if only we thank Him for what He has done and ask Him to be our Saviour and Lord. 

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