A much talked about movie will be coming out in just a couple of weeks. I've found it interesting to hear the kinds of comments that are being made about it. On the one hand, some are saying that this is a touching and powerful portrayal which "is as it was." On the other hand, there are comments being made to the effect that this is the most controversial movie to have ever been produced, and that it will set Christian-Jewish relationships back some fifty years, and that it is hurtful in its effect.
These are statements that have been made about Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ." Gibson has undertaken to portray in a very vivid way the last twelve hours of Jesus' life leading up to the crucifixion itself. He has undertaken to have it all presented in Aramaic, which was the language of Jesus' day, and to have subtitles in English. He could find no company to distribute his work after it was completed, so he decided to do it himself. Some of the predictions about his future have been dire because of this. Some have suggested he will never find work in Hollywood again. It has been reported that he and his family have been threatened. Some are claiming that his film is anti-Semitic.
What is it about the portrayal of the death of Christ that raises that kind of strong feeling and controversy?
We might begin by pointing out that the cross and what took place there has always evoked strong feelings from people who have thought about what Jesus offered there. If you read the Gospel accounts, you will notice them. His enemies' response is obvious. They were not able to just ignore what Jesus was doing there for us. Enemies chose that occasion as the time for their bitter invective against Jesus and their words of insult and mockery and reviling. Matthew says in Matthew 27 that "those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, 'You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!. If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.' So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 'He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, 'I am the Son of God.'' And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way." The things that were most tender and most important to Jesus were the things seized on by these around the cross to mock him and to further hurt him.
Not only were their strong responses from his enemies, but also from his loved ones and friends. You will notice from the reading earlier, the women who stood by the cross watching what took place there and no doubt suffering with the one who was being offered. Among those mentioned are his mother, his mother's sister, Mary Magdalene, people his life had touched and people to whom he was precious. You and I, no doubt, can only image what kind of agonizing responses they must have known toward the events that day.
And then there are the powerful responses from nature. We might regard them as the actions of God himself in reply to what was taking place on the cross. You will remember that Matthew gives us this in most detail. "Now from the sixth hour (about noon) there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour." And the passage tells us that when Jesus had cried out, "the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. Any many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised." Everybody would agree that those are powerful responses to what took place on the cross - the sun not shining, or at least being veiled, the earth quaking, the huge veil in the temple being torn from top to bottom, and some tombs being opened. While Jesus was dying there, strong responses to the cross were apparent.
But not only that, as the gospel began to be preached, the story of the cross brought forth strong responses from people. One good example of this is found in Acts, chapters 3, 4, and 5. In Acts 3, Peter and John had brought healing to a man who had been lame. They had given him what they had through the name of Jesus, and it, of course, caused a huge commotion around the temple area. People came wanting to know how this could happen. Peter said in verses 13 and following of chapter 3, "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of our Fathers, glorified his servant Jesus whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate when he had decided to release him. But you denied the holy and righteous one and asked for a murdered to be granted to you, and you killed the author of life whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses." Verse 17 says, "Now brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets that his Christ would suffer, he has thus fulfilled." The Bible says in chapter 4 that those spokesmen were called before the council, they were charged not to speak anymore in Jesus name, and then they were further threatened, and then they were let go. But they prayed, and before very long, they were found speaking again all the words of this life. They were arrested, they were brought forth out of the jail, they were found speaking again, and this time when angry rulers confronted Peter and John, they said to them in verse 27, "We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you are. You filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man's blood on us." Peter answered their statements by what he had seen of the Jesus who had been raised up and exalted to be savior. Verse 33 says, "When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them." And a little later in verse 40 it says that they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus and then let them go. The strong responses to the cross are obvious there. There is something the cross says that cannot be ignored or cannot be tolerated by those who are opposed to Jesus.
As the story of the New Testament further unfolds, the strong responses to the cross continue to be portrayed in the epistles. In I Cor. 1 the apostle Paul writes to Christians at Corinth. Corinth is the center of a lot of Greek philosophy and Greek thinking and of worldly living. The apostle Paul says that his task has been "to preach the word of the cross," in verse 18. But in verses 23 and 24, the responses to the cross are interesting. "But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews or folly (or foolishness) to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."
There are three terms Paul uses here which are picturesque, and they all show strong, passionate feelings in response to Jesus. The first idea is the thought of his being foolishness, folly. To the Gentile world, the cross was a kind of death which was reserved for the worst kind of criminals, the dregs of society, the only ones who would be crucified. To have somebody who had suffered that kind of death, and to claim that this is a divine being who has now brought forth deliverance and salvation by that death, that thought was pictured as the worst kind of craziness. The earliest picture that has ever been discovered of the crucifixion is something intended to suggest that the idea was just ridiculous. It is a piece of graffiti, a drawing from the 2nd Century - that would be the 100s A.D. It was discovered on the Palatine Hill in Rome on the wall of a house that is considered by some scholars to have been used as a school for imperial pages. It is a caricature or a cartoon. A crude drawing depicts stretched out on a cross a man who has the head of a donkey, and to the left of that picture there stands another man who is portrayed as being in worship. Unevenly scribbled underneath that picture are the words, "Alexqmenos worships God." That picture is preserved right now in the Kircherian Museum in Rome, and it is a way of stating what the Gentile world thought of the idea that the Son of God would save by being sacrificed in crucifixion. The word for that foolishness that the Gentiles saw on the cross is the word that we get "moron" from. It is not just a joke. It is an insulting joke that they regard of the cross.
On the other hand, Paul says to the Jews, "Christ crucified is a stumbling block." That term is the word from which we get the English "scandalous." To the Jewish way of thinking at the time, it was as scandalous as any kind of a terrible, scandalous story that might appear in our press now. You see, the Jews regarded being hanged on a cross in crucifixion as equivalent to being hanged on a tree. And the Old Testament said that anyone who died by being hanged on a tree was under a curse from God (Deut. 21:23). And for Jesus to be hanged on the cross would be saying that he was under the curse of God. And to say that he was the Messiah and the Savior would be saying that someone under the curse of God would be the long-awaited Messiah and the Savior of the world. To the Jewish mind, that could and would not be accepted.
The third idea that Paul brings up here is for us who believe. He says in our case the cross is the power of God. The word that he uses here is the Greek term that we get our English "dynamite" from. Powerful, so powerful, that it can change our hearts and change our thinking, change our relationship to God, and change our eternal destiny.
Which is it with you and me? Is the preaching of the cross to us moronish? Is it scandalous? Or is it dynamite? It would be the shame of shames if in this world which responds so strongly to the word of the cross that the only place where that idea is taken for granted, and the only place it puts us to sleep, and the only place it is old news would be in the Lord's church itself! G.C. Brewer some years ago made a statement thatpresses this point home: "Have you no place in your heart's affection for a savior like this? Can you look with indifference on the suffering Son of God as he hangs bleeding and dying on the cross for you? God loves you. Jesus died fo you. Angels are concerned for you. Can you, the one who should be most interested, be indifferent and unconcerned? The sun refused to shine on the crucifixion of Jesus. Can you look upon it without a blush? The earth trembled when the Savior died? Can you contemplate it without a tremor? The solid rocks were rent. Can your heart remain unbroken?" That is thought provoking to me.
The preaching of the word of the cross has always brought strong responses from people. The question is, why? Why is it doing so today in our society? What is there about the word of the cross that is so difficult for people to hear and to accept? We might mention two or three things. One is that it actually happened. The idea that the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us and then ended up being crucified and intentionally giving himself there. That thought has been rejected by many. For example, a key concept about Jesus in Islam is that it never happened. The idea that it was necessary for the Messiah, the anointed one, this great prophet sent from God to be offered up in such a manner as this is regarded as being something that is not needed. Allah would never allow someone who was not guilty to bear somebody else's penalty. And so, Islam has the idea that Jesus was not really offered on the cross; that he was secretly ushered away and that either Judas or Simon of Cyrene was crucified there instead of Jesus. Well, you will say that you don't want to go that far, but there are still plenty of people in the world who will deny that the crucifixion of Jesus is a fact of history, even though the evidence of it is so strong even outside the pages of scripture.
A second reason why the thought of the cross is so threatening and brings strong responses is the idea that this would be required. That it would be necessary for the Son of God to be offered in order to redeem us says two things that many are unprepared to hear. One has to do with what God is like. We have developed the idea that the love of God only has to do with his ability to have pity on the helpless and only has to do with his compassion for people and what they go through. To us the idea that the wrath of God would have to be exercised toward sin, even to the point he will require it at the blood of his only begotten Son - that picture of God is one that many in our world will not hear. We insist on having a God who will do what we want him to do, and what we want him to do is for him to care more than anything else about whether we are happy with things and whether we accept it. If the story of the cross is true, there is a God who loves with a holy love whose faithfulness is such that he is going to require what he said he would require for sin. And that God cannot move away from his own justice and righteousness. He cannot just say, "Oh, it's alright. It's no big deal. I'll let it go." If the story of scripture is true, God is a God whose love will do right even to the point of offering his son.
The other reason we don't like the fact that the cross is required is what it says about the ugliness of our own sin. We are capable of justifying ourselves. We like to think that sin in our lives is not that big a deal. Everybody does it. And in that view of things, sin doesn't look so bad to us. The one thing the cross reveals is the darkness and the ugliness of wrongdoing - where it can lead - what it can do. David Roper said of the cross, "Sometimes people do not understand how terrible sin is. If you would know, look at the cross. Sin took a tree designed to build a house and made a cross. Sin took spikes that could have held that house together and nailed the Son of God to that cross. Sin took a spray of roses that might have graced that house and made a crown of thorns and then thrust it down on the brow of Jesus. And finally, sin took the only perfect life that could have lived in that house and then separated that one from God for three excruciating hours. Yes, if you would know how terrible sin is, just see the agony that Jesus had to undergo as he took the punishment for our sins." We don't like to hear that in our world right now.
The other reason that the cross draws such response is the idea that what took place there is uniquely effective. That is, that the offering of Jesus on the cross does what no other sacrifice or no other person could ever have done or ever will do, that he actually paid the price, that our sin was laid on his body, that he makes redemption and access to God a possibility. The Hebrew writer dwells on the point that this is something which has been done "once for all." And the outworking of that phrase is that there couldn't have been a different sacrifice than what Jesus offered that can save, and that there never will be another sacrifice besides what Jesus offered. And what that gets down to is the idea that Jesus is the way, and the only way. No one comes to the Father but by him (Jn. 14:6). A lot of people hear that in our world as if it were a self-righteous statement exclusive of other great world religions when we are really talking about who Jesus is and what he has done. If the cross is true, then it is the only price that can redeem us from lostness. That is the point that gives the gospel at least part of its power.
The cross has always evoked strong responses for some very practical and good reasons. How does it impact your life and mine today? The gospel calls us to have our hearts turned away from that ugliness of sin by what we see on the cross, to humble ourselves before God and to accept what he is offering to us, to confess that we believe that what took place there is enough, and to imitate it by being buried with him in baptism and being raised up to walk in newness of life. And having done that, we are to have a frame of mind which is like what Jesus showed when he offered himself there, and a way of life that fits the fact that we are following someone who was so devoted to the Father that he would give himself up on the cross. It has been pointed out that "the cross is not just a way of looking at certain things, but it is a certain way of looking at all things." Christians view life in the shadow of the cross.
Maybe this morning you need to be encouraged by being reminded that is how much God cared and was willing to pay for us. Maybe we all need to be confronted by the fact that that is the kind of loyalty to the Lord that ought to be fitting to someone who is saved by the cross. If you are here today and you need to come to Christ, won't you do it this morning while we stand and sing together?