Reflections on Messiah's suffering from my perspective as a Jewish disciple
Having just come back from seeing the film The Passion of the Christ, I was moved to write down the following thoughts. The film is powerful and a remarkable achievement on several levels. It’s a realistic depiction of the final hours of Jesus life. We are transported to Jerusalem from the Garden of Gethsemane into the court of the Jewish Sanhedrin and into the courtyard of Pontius Pilate and ultimately to Golgotha.
It removes the soft image of Jesus showing his manliness and his great strengths both mentally and physically. His trust in God and his struggle to endure the sufferings are beautifully portrayed. It shows the underlying evil working to break Jesus as well as his ability to remain cool under pressure. His strength to resist the temptation to cave into the evil forces surrounding him is shown in the very beginning and carried throughout the film. There are suffering scenes that are so graphic that they are hard to look at. It’s quite startling just how little dialogue is in the film and yet each scene speaks volumes.
The Greatest Love Story Ever Told.
"Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
-- Romans 5:7-8
Here the story is told with taste, dignity, and the highest level of visual craftsmanship. It shows great respect for the story as recorded in the gospels. For many Jews viewing the film, this will be the first time they will have been exposed to the story. That reason alone makes it an accomplishment of enormous significance. The visuals are powerful and perhaps needed for our generation that is so constantly bombarded with visual images. The beginning quote from Isaiah 53 written 700 B.C. shows that it was a story foretold in prophecy and fulfilled in history seven hundred years later. While some are voicing concerns about the issue of anti Semitism, the film draws attention to one central reality -- the love of God for the human race. There is minimal attention given to blame but rather the deeper meaning behind Messiah’s suffering. It makes it clear that no one took Jesus’ life but rather He laid it down on our behalf. Did the Jewish leaders sin in rejecting their Messiah? Yes, and in spite of that he continued to love his people. The extreme brutality of the flogging and the crucifixion by the Romans are portrayed with unrelenting horror beyond our imagination. According to the prophet Isaiah, the Messiah would become so disfigured that his appearance would be "appalling." "His form marred beyond human likeness." Isaiah 52:14. This was accurately portrayed in the film.
The movie helped me to get back in touch with the reality of how much Gods love resided in Jesus. The love that endured the cross is portrayed vividly. It is a love that goes beyond human description. It is a holy love and a love that surpasses understanding (Eph 3:17-19); a love that, once we understand it, draws us to Him.
Yeshua said, "If I be lifted up - I will draw all men unto me" – John 12:32
Hopefully this film will stimulate many Jews to crack open the New Testament for the first time and read with an openness that has been discouraged (even forbidden) by traditional Judaism. For those who are going to see the film I recommend taking some time to meditate on Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52:13 - 53:1- 13. These two amazing sections in the Hebrew Scriptures picture the crucifixion centuries beforehand. This movie provides a chance for all viewers to come face to face with the most incredible Jew who ever lived. It also gives us the opportunity to come face to face with the darkness of evil and the effects of our sin. We are forced to witness the horror and ugliness of crucifixion as one of the cruelest Roman forms of execution. Above all, it brings us face to face with the love of our Creator who " so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son." (John 3:16)
Movies can be helpful but have their limitations
Although the film is destined to impact many, its lasting impact will come for those drawn to look into the Scriptures to find the Messiah for themselves. There they will see how amazing He really is. It’s a blessing to be able to have movies that can help our hearts but it’s unwise to rely on them for our faith. Like miracles of the first century that blew away people, movies can also blow us away emotionally but the impact is temporary. We have to allow our hearts to be impacted by His word in order to remain strong and grow spiritually.
Some reacted negatively to the violence in the film because that's all they could focus on. The depiction of the severity and physical intensity of the scourging and crucifixion of Yeshua was very graphic. The scenes were designed to bring a reality to the passion accounts that have been lacking in previous films. However, when it comes to impacting the world, simply viewing realistic images of such an ordeal, by itself, does not necessarily, nor adequately convey the gospel (the good news). This is one of the problems of Catholicism and crucifixes. They emphasize the death but not the purpose behind the death. Growing up Jewish, my earliest recollections of Jesus came from images I saw in the homes of my Catholic neighbors. Along with those images of crucifixes and Jesus suffering I needed an explanation of how his death related to me personally. Whether raised Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, or Muslim, we all need help to understand what the cross is really all about. The concept of Messiah’s death as a sacrifice requires clarity and explanation. Failure to connect the HOW and WHY of Jesus’ death leaves people at the foot of the cross just feeling bad for Jesus. Images alone of the passion are not enough to truly grasp its implications.
The Role of Believers
This may sound a bit obvious but bears reminding: that it is up to us as believers to explain the meaning and necessity of Messiah's suffering to those who don't understand it. After all, the message of the cross is not merely that an innocent man died a horrible execution. Without explaining the seriousness of sin, the concept of substitution and the need for atonement, the passion will simply be viewed as a tragedy. The movie will appear excessively violent and people will get caught up with the blame game (over who really killed Jesus). All of these are simply distractions from the real issue behind the passion. It is up to believers, not just evangelists, and clergy, or even filmmakers. We are all called tell the story and be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:14-21).
The Meaning Behind the Passion
Telling the story involves explaining how the suffering of Messiah made it possible for God’s justice and mercy to come together in order to pay the penalty for our sins. This was not just a way; it was the only way for God to provide atonement for our sin and its consequences.
" For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice." - Romans 3:23-26
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”- I Corinthians 1:18
As in the first century, the message of the cross will appear foolish to many. Without a sense of the holiness of God, the seriousness of sin and the need for forgiveness through atonement, the crucifixion remains a dark memory in history. It will appear simply as a tragedy, the sad end of a great rabbi.
The Jewish Perspective
Pontius Pilate was notorious for crucifying thousands of Jews. Therefore Jewish people question why Jesus death seems to get so much attention. Most Orthodox Jews regard him simply as a great rabbi who was killed because he was a political radical. They refuse to accept his messianic claims and refuse to admit their need for a sacrifice of atonement. Rabbinic Judaism has reinterpreted the messianic prophecies, going to great lengths to sidestep around the obvious fulfilled prophecies in Jesus. In spite of the teachings in the Bible of the need of blood sacrifices and sin offerings on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16), they downplay the need for such sacrifices today. Any acceptance of Jesus among Jews is viewed as a form of betrayal. The pressure is nothing less than a suppression of truth out of fear of assimilation with Gentiles. This is a sad misunderstanding rooted in a history of anti-Semitism and continues to be a major stumbling block.
Respecting the anxiety of Jews over Anti-Semitism
Due to the history of persecution and prejudice against Jewish people, their passion to survive as a people has overshadowed any other purpose. Thus, the issues of blame (who killed Jesus) fear of anti-Jewish reactions become emotional issues that distract them from appreciating the primary message of the cross. I appeal to all of us to do whatever we can to remove the odious religious influences that portray Jews as "Christ killers". We must be sensitive to this in order to help them recognize that Jesus was their Messiah. He came for them and that his suffering was in total fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. His sacrifice and the shedding of his blood was the supreme atonement - the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb and the guilt offerings of Yom Kippur. We must do everything we can to be sensitive to the subject of anti-Semitism while speaking the truth in love.
We are all responsible of the death of Jesus
The reason that no true Christian blames anyone for the death of Jesus is because we understand that it was our own personal transgressions and the sins of humanity that nailed him to the cross; as the famous hymn writer of Amazing Grace, John Newton wrote:
"My conscience felt in all its guilt and plunged me into despair.
I saw my sins that rather his blood had spilt and helped to nail him there!"
Blaming any particular group of people for the death of Jesus takes away from the reality that no one could take his life, but that he chose to give up his life for us (John 10:17). In one sense the Romans killed him but in another sense, He voluntarily sacrificed himself. It was the Lord’s will to make his life a guilt offering for us (Isaiah 53:10-12).
Reactions to the Cross
Christians don't see the death of Jesus as a tragedy but as a triumph. Because he lived a sinless life He became man’s ultimate sin offering. Even to the very end when he actually was able to say.”Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:36). Jesus came out the winner in the end and so do all of us who put our trust in His sacrifice as an atonement for our sins. No ones suffering and death has accomplished as much and had such an impact on people’s lives. This explains why the predominant reaction of those who have seen the film is not an outcry of anti-Semitism but rather, "I can’t believe he did that for me."
Just as there were different reactions of people who witnessed the actual crucifixion, so there will be different reactions from those who see it in the movie. Some leave theaters quietly shaking their heads. Others are moved by certain scenes in the movie. Some will go simply out of curiosity; some will be cynical and just criticize the film for its level of violence.
The over riding reaction, however, can best be compared to our reaction if someone volunteered to take our place in front of a firing squad. Suppose you were found guilty for a crime to be punished by death and someone takes your place. Do you think you’d be wondering who was on the firing squad? No, you’d say, "I can’t believe He volunteered to take my place." You would be overwhelmed with gratitude and relief. That is the reaction of the majority. A true believer does not blame anyone for the death of Christ but rather glories in it (Galatians 6:14). We sing songs about the passion and the blood of Christ. No other single individual’s suffering and death has so changed lives and the course of world history. This explains why disciples celebrate His death and thank God for the death.
The Passion in Prophecy
The film opens with a scripture passage from Isaiah 53. For any Hollywood filmmaker to use a quote from the Bible is a bold move and actually plants a seed in the mind of the viewer. However that seed needs to be watered in order to grow. We as God’s children are called to water the seed. We water it by loving, sharing our lives, and by teaching. We would do well to go back and open up people's understanding from the entire 53rd chapter of Isaiah. Among the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 53 is a valuable resource; both as a means of explaining the cross and proving the scriptures are God’s inspired word. There, we can share the meaning of the death of Messiah directly from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Isaiah 53 prophecy clearly describes a human being coming as God’s servant to suffer on behalf of the crimes of others. Jews today resist the notion that anyone can atone for anyone else’s sins and yet here it is right in their own writings. From the Torah we read only about animals as sin-offerings. However, the radical message of Isaiah’s prophecy is found in his portrayal of an unblemished human being (not an animal) described as the sin offering.
"All we are like sheep-we have all gone astray and
The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. --Isaiah 53:6
The suffering servant in this chapter is described as carrying out the will of God by being the sacrificed lamb. v; 7 "Like a lamb being led to the slaughter". There is clear imagery of a brutal execution towards a man who is innocent. This is the essence of substitution - the innocent for the guilty. His suffering brings about salvation for the guilty. Why Him? Because his sinless life was of such value that it could be offered up on behalf of each sinful human being. His sacrifice as a man was the price paid for the penalty of mankind’s sin.
It may also be worth noting the strong proof that this prophecy was written prior to the event of the crucifixion. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the existence of the Septuagint (The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures completed around 250 BCE) substantiates this fact. The scroll of Isaiah was among several scrolls found preserved in clay jars in the Qumran caves that are now on display at the Dead Sea Scroll Museum in Jerusalem. Anyone can see for themselves that the prophecy existed hundreds of years before the event occurred. Isaiah 53 provides substantial evidence that this was revealed from a source beyond the realm of human knowledge.
The Passion - More Than a Sad Event
The passion as recorded in the gosels was not meant to be viewed as a sad event or as an afterthought of God. It’s interesting that the early Jewish disciples never viewed the passion as a tragedy but as a victory. The passion was about a man completing his mission. He was born to die. He lived a sinless life and then offered up that righteous life on our behalf. One of his last words on the cross was "It is finished".
Peter states "you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers by the precious blood of Messiah, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake." (I Peter 1:18-21.) The cross was not a mistake or an accident. In fact one marvel of the cross is that it was an event planned "before the foundation of the world."
The quote from Peter is quite amazing on several levels. Peter was a typical Jew of his era who, as a follower of Jesus, could never conceive of the Jewish Messiah ever needing to suffer. This was inconceivable to the Jews of his time. However he soon came to understand both its meaning and necessity. He later spoke boldly to his Jewish countrymen that it was God’s predetermined plan for the Messiah to suffer (Acts 2:23). Later, writing to some disciples facing suffering of their own, he says,
"And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross that we might die to sins and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed." - I Peter 2:23
Peter is echoing the message of Isaiah 53 and the sacrificed Lamb metaphors of the Hebrew writings. Jesus did not have to die like that simply to be a great teacher or to set a good example. His suffering was extreme because mans condition was so extreme. Often the remedy for a severe disease like cancer or rabies requires a remedy that is also extremely severe and painful.
The suffering was horrible because sin is horrible
Several newspaper editorials criticized the film for its excessive level of brutality and violence. With all the violent movies (and video games) available - that criticism seems a bit lame. In actuality, the Passion movie was simply being historically accurate in portraying the reality behind this form of brutal execution. Did you know that our term for excruciating pain is rooted in the level of pain of the crucifixion? The word "excruciating" comes directly from the words "from or out of the cross."
It’s easy to miss the point. Without understanding the devastating consequences of sin and concept of substitution, the point to all the violence will be misunderstood. These connections require explanation. That is where we as disciples come in. It takes effort, time, love and patience but that is what He calls us to do as his followers. (Mark 16:15-16; I Corinthians 15:1-5) That's exactly what his followers did in the first century. We who understand why He had to suffer must rise to the occasion more now than ever. The darkness of the world is only getting darker. Isaiah 52:13-53:14 explains it all so very well. In fact we even have an example to model from Phillip and the Eunuch in Acts 8:26-39. It takes more than a movie, a tract, or an evangelistic crusade. It requires people explaining to people. Are we able to effectively point to the Hebrew Scriptures that explain the meaning behind the Messiah's suffering?
This is an incredible opportunity. At no other time in history since the first century has the topic of Jesus death been so freely talked about. Who knows but that this movie was made for such a time as this? May God help us to open up dialogue and explain the meaning of the cross and why Jesus had to die in that way. God bless you as you make the most of this opportunity.
" This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom of all men --the testimony given in its proper time..."
- I Timothy 2:4-6
Here are two great hymns that seem appropriate to sing after seeing this film: These old hymns still resonate with deep poetic and theological understanding of the meaning of the cross.
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.
Words by Isaac Watts 1674-1748
When I survey the wondrous cross. On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
See from His head His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life my all.
O Sacred Head
Words by Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century.
translated into English by James Alexander 1830)
O Sacred Head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown:
How art thou pale with anguish - with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish which once was bright as morn?
What language shall I borrow to thank Thee dearest friend?
For this Thy dying sorrow - Thy pity with out end.
O make me Thine forever and should I fainting be,
Lord let me never, never out live my love to Thee.
---Phillip Lester August 31, 2012