The Passion of the Christ – A Theological Overview
Hope you don’t mind if I start this out with a bit of Latin.
O salutaris hostia,
Quae caeli pandas ostium,
Bella premunt hostilia,
Da robur, fer auxilium.
With the Passion being released this Ash Wednesday, I’ve been putting off giving a background on it for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to keep my own mind clear in regards to my own expectations, and secondly I wanted to be able to have Gibson’s account come through clearly without my own background trying to re-interpret what he was trying to say with the film.
Upon request, I have decided to give a little bit of background. But rather than focus on Christ (which hopefully will be the focus of the movie), I want to offer a bit of focus on those surrounding Christ at the time of his death.
The context of those surrounding Christ is important for three distinct reasons. First, they tell a story that the Gospel writers clearly wanted to communicate. Second, the stories that are communicated have deep implications not only for our time but for human nature as well. Thirdly, those surrounding Christ at the time of his death reveal a theological implication concerning Christ and the tremendous suffering He must have experienced at during his Passion.
I’ll begin with a contrast between two of the major characters among the followers of Christ; namely Judas and Peter.
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In John 13, we read of the Last Supper where Christ explains to those around him that one of them will betray Christ. Peter leans back and asks Christ who this person will be. “The one to whom I give the bit of food I dip in the dish.”
27 Immediately after, Satan entered his heart. Jesus addressed himself to him, “Be quick about what you are to do.”
30 No sooner had Judas eaten the morsel than he went out. It was night.
If one reads John 13, verse 30 makes little sense to the English reader. Why did John add the last part, “It was night”?
The role of light and dark in the book of John is very important. Earlier in the gospel of John, Nicodemus (John 3) approaches Jesus at night. Later in the book of John, Mary Magdalene approaches the Tomb of Christ “while it was still night.” (John 20:1) The contrasts shouldn’t be missed, because John is making two very clear points.
Recall earlier in the Gospels when Jesus is being tempted by Satan. Three times Satan tries; three times Jesus rebukes Satan. (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13) In Luke, note the account he gives:
13 When the devil had finished all the tempting he left him, to wait another opportunity.
With Satan entering Judas, and the stark contrast of night coming over John 13, we can see the spiritual night that is overcoming the text. This indeed is that second opportunity Satan was waiting for.
The second parallel here is the play of light and dark. Just as this darkness is coming over the Passion of Christ, the juxtaposition of Christ as the light of the world can be seen. Truly a battle between the forces of light and dark can be seen. Christ as the light of the world is present, and as we will see at Gethsemane, Jesus’ human nature begins to fear the scourging his divine nature knows He must endure.
I want to fast forward a bit concerning Judas, namely to the point where he sees the results of his actions. Judas can be defined accurately as a coward of sorts. At this point, he is afraid of Jesus, afraid of his own actions. Previously, he was willing to turn over Christ. One can see the compromiser in Judas – Judas as peacemaker. Judas as the one not to create waves. We can dwell forever as to why Judas turned Christ over to the authorities. Ultimately, Judas felt deep sorrow for betraying Christ.
But there is another betrayer here in the Gospels that often times is not considered on the same par as Judas – and that is Peter. Peter also betrays Christ in his own way. After seeing Jesus taken away, after cutting off the ear of one of his captors, Jesus rebukes Peter (again) for his actions and watches as Jesus is led away. For Peter, any final remnants of the old Jewish idea of the Messiah as an earthly King was swept away. Peter wanted the legions of angels to come swooping down. Peter wanted the armies of God to appear. Peter didn’t understand why no one else was fighting for Christ! How frustrating it must have been. . .
When Peter has his chance, he is asked in John 18 by a servant girl, “Are you not one of this man’s followers?” A man indeed! Not the Messiah who was going to liberate Israel, but a man who barely fought for himself an hour ago, a man who was going to undergo unimaginable pain and suffering – and for what? You can see Peter thinking about his answer, warming his hands, pretending to stay calm.
When both Judas and Peter realize what they have done, it is interesting to note where both go for forgiveness. Both feel genuine sorrow. Both understand in the depth of their hearts what they have done and to whom they have done it to. Judas goes back to the Sanhedrin and demands they take the money back. The reply of the chief priests? “What is that to us?” In despair, Judas hangs himself from a tree.
Peter likewise is faced with his own betrayal of Christ. But note that his reaction is much different. Unlike Judas, who sought forgiveness under the Old Covenant, Peter seeks forgiveness in the New Covenant. The moment he remembers, he thinks of Christ and how Christ reminded him that he would deny Him three times. Instead of going out and doing even greater harm by killing himself, Peter “went out and wept bitterly.” (Matthew 26:75)
Matthew interestingly enough places the two accounts side by side. Not a mere coincidence, as the accounts end with a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy:
They took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of a man with a price on his head, a price set out by the Israelites, and they paid it out for the potter’s field just as the Lord had commanded me. (Matthew 27:9-10, Jer 18:2f; 19:1f, 32:6-15, Zec 11:13)
Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin
Everyone recalls the controversy surrounding the high priest Caiaphas screaming out in the Passion “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children!” In Matthew, the words are attributed to the crowd instigated by the high priests, and are a fulfillment of Jeremiah 51:35:
My torn flesh be upon Babylon, says the city of Zion;
My blood upon the people of Chaldea, says Jerusalem.
Now one might say this has nothing to do with anything, but take a better look at Jeremiah’s message. It was necessary for the Jews to crucify Jesus in order for the prophecy to come true concerning the Christ.
If one has any doubts as to whether or not the early Christians considered this to be of great importance, check out Paul in Acts 18:5-6:
When Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul was absorbed in preaching and giving evidence to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. When they opposed him and insulted him, he would shake out his garments and in protest say to them: “Your blood be on your won heads. I am not to blame! From now on, I will turn to the Gentiles.”
Wow! Here is a frustrated Paul being cynical, condemning his fellow Jews with the authority of the prophet Jeremiah! Strong stuff, especially concerning the importance of Caiaphas’ remarks in Matthew 26.
Now before anyone asks whether the Gospel writers are treating Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin too harshly, keep in mind the following account in Matthew and their treatment of Christ (similar to the treatment Jesus would receive at the hands of the Romans later in the day):
Then they began to spit in his face and hit him. Others slapped him, saying: “Play the prophet for us, Messiah! Who struck you?”
Here we have the one man who could have decided the whole thing. By his own admission, the power to let Jesus live, or let him die.
At daybreak they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the praetorium. They did not enter the praetorium themselves, for they had to avoid ritual impurity if they were to eat the Passover supper. Pilate came out to them. “What accusation do you bring against this man?” he demanded.
Just another day, just another criminal for Pilate. But as things move along, Pilate begins to question whether this is just another criminal. After Caiaphas and the priests make their accusations against Jesus, Pilate begins his interrogation.
“Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own, or have others been telling you about me?”
“I am no Jew!” Pilate retorted. “It is your own people and the chief priests who have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Oh boy. Pilate and Jesus hit it off from the get-go. Interesting where the two are coming from though. To Jesus, to be able to admit that Jesus is the “King of the Jews” is an admission of faith. You could see his human nature perking up just a bit, that maybe Pilate is saying something here. But Jesus knows better, so it is a half-hearted remark.
Pilate on the other hand is short with Jesus. “Do I look like a Jew to you?” King of the Jews, bah! Pilate at this point could care less. To him, this is one more nut claiming to be a Messiah – and certainly no Roman.
After Jesus responds that his kingdom is not of this world, and that his kingdom is one of truth, Pilate spins quickly on Jesus:
“Truth!” said Pilate. “What does that mean?”
Appropriate for the times.
Unfortunately for Jesus, this means that Pilate can neither condemn nor release him, so as a compromise he offers an exchange. We can either release Jesus, whom has done no wrong. Or we can release Barabbas, who is a murderer and an “insurrectionist” according to John. The Jews demand Barabbas and renew their cries for Jesus’ death.
So Pilate sends Jesus to be scourged in order to mollify the Jews. After scourging Jesus, Pilate goes before the crowd and attempts to market his compromise (John 19:4):
Pilate went out a second time and said to the crowd: “Observe what I do, I am going to bring him out ot you to make you realize that I find no case (against him).” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak, Pilate said to them, “Look at the man! (Ecce homo!)”
As soon as the chief priests and temple guards saw him they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Here Pilate has Jesus beaten to a pulp. An innocent man in his regard, but to no avail. The crowd, now whipped into a frenzy by the chief priests, demand Jesus be crucified.
“We have our law,” the Jews responded, “and according that law he must die because he made himself God’s Son.”
Now this startled and stunned Pilate, and for good reason. He returned to Jesus and demanded more information. Jesus remained silent. Pilate, not knowing what he was dealing with, was eager to release this man at once. But the Jews insisted all the more, taunting Pilate with his reputation:
“If you free this man you are no ‘Friend of Caesar.’ Everyone who makes himself a king becomes Caesar’s rival.”
In the end, Pilate the politician caves because his honor and reputation are threatened. Not with the life of an innocent man on his conscience, nor with the thought of doing justice when justice demanded it. Rather, Pilate does what is politically convenient. He compromises. He washes his hands of Jesus’ blood and orders Christ to be crucified amid cries of “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15)
Simon of Cyrene
One of the more powerful moments during the Via Dolorosa is when Christ falls a second time and the Romans are concerned that Jesus may not make it to Golgotha if he has to carry the Cross alone. So the Romans pull out a nobody from the crowd and tell him to help (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26).
Simon is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Passion. He gets no respect – the poor fella gets three lines (and John doesn’t mention him at all!) and only Mark mentions what he did for a living. A farmer coming in from the fields after a long day’s work, and he has to carry a cross up a hill with some bloody guy. And not by choice. . . no no no. . . by force! Not a dime for his trouble.
So what’s the importance of this? Simon is a Gentile. Simon was an unbeliever. He wasn’t even a Jew. He didn’t know what he was getting himself into. He was barely aware of how he was participating in our salvation. Yet participate he did. Tradition holds that his sons, mentioned again by Mark, did in fact become Christian, and eventually became saints; Alexander being mentioned in Acts 19:33-34, and Rufus being mentioned in Romans 26:13.
At the wedding feast at Cana, the party runs out of wine. One of the hosts approaches Mary, who in turn approaches Jesus and says, “They have no wine.” Jesus responds with an answer that today seems almost sexist and abrasive. “Woman,” Jesus says, “how does this concern of yours involve me?” Mary’s response isn’t to backhand her son, but rather she turns with complete confidence and says, “Do whatever it is he tells you.” Sure enough, Jesus turns the water into wine, as we all know how the story goes. (John 2)
There is only one other occasion in Scripture where Jesus calls Mary “woman” again (John 19:26
Seeing his mother there with the disciple (John) whom he loved, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” In turn he said to the disciple, “Son, behold your mother.” From that hour onward, the disciple took her into his heart.
The disciple took her into his heart. Mary’s role in Christian theology is central to an understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion. It must have been heart wrenching to see the very same son she held in a manger in Bethlehem, whom she took to Egypt, whom she scoured the Temple for when Jesus was twelve, whom she rocked to sleep, kissed, held, nurtured, and raised, to see her son fall on the hard stone of Jerusalem three times and be powerless to help.
When Christ looks upon his mother and utters the words “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother,” it is a powerful scene. Among those four people at the foot of the Cross were literally the first Christians. Mary is very literally being made a mother to the Church present to Christ, and the Church is asked to accept Mary as their mother.
“Do whatever he tells you to.” What a powerful message the Mother of Christ has in today’s world.
It’s interesting that there is a lot of controversy over Mary Magdalene, not only because of her status, but because there are three different accounts. Were there three Mary Magdalenes? One person, but three different accounts of her? Traditionally, the three accounts are regarded as the same person and a testament to the power of conversion and forgiveness of sin.
What is most remarkable about Mary Magdalene is that she remained with Christ until the very end. Notice the four people who remain with Christ; his mother, a widower, the converted Magdalene, and the young John. Not the Apostles, not Peter, not any of the disciples. These four.
Mary Magdalene is a perfect illustration of a very old saying, that converts are usually the most fanatic believers in Christianity. That Mary Magdalene was able to stay there at the foot of the Cross bears powerful testimony towards mercy and redemptive power of forgiveness. Furthermore, it is Mary Magdalene who is the first to see the Risen Christ (John 20:11-18)
If you want to read something really humorous, check out John 20:17. After Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and gives a rather lengthy and noble discourse concerning where his body is (as Mary doesn’t quite get the idea that Jesus is right there in front of her), Jesus pauses and says “Do not cling to me,” or more literally, “Quit touching me!” In Matthew 28:9, the women had a habit of touching Jesus’ feet.
An annoyed Jesus? For some reason, this just makes me smile a bit.
IN THE END, we are presented with a very rich and diverse series of images concerning the final hours of Christ’s life before the crucifixion. It is a very painful and emotional death with deep imagery and significance. The Gospel writers are keen to demonstrate how Christ’s death on the Cross fulfilled the prophecies of the prophets in every way. There is no question to the early Christians that Jesus was indeed the Christ.
I hope that this overview (and even though it is this long, yet it is an overview) helps some folks understand some of the imagery and theology behind the Passion of the Christ. If there is anything else that I can help clarify, I will most certainly give it my best shot.