The reaction to the release of Mel Gibson?s film The Passion of the Christ this past week proves that Americans are still very interested in and curious about Jesus. In just a few days, the film made tens of millions of dollars in what was one of the biggest openings for any film ever. The Passion has made it clear once again that America is, as one historian recently put it, a ?Jesus nation.?E

But saying that we are a ?Jesus nation?Edoes not mean that we are a Christian people. Over the centuries of American history, ?Jesus?Ehas come to mean all kinds of things to all kinds of people. Among the Puritans of the early American colonies, Jesus was worshiped and followed as the second person of the Trinity, God Incarnate, who had come to earth to save man. During the nineteenth century, the American view of Jesus was gradually detached from Calvinism and from the creeds of the early church, and with the rise of NT criticism Jesus was separated from the NT itself. By the middle of the nineteenth century, admiring Jesus no longer had much of anything to do with the belief that He was God in human flesh.

Today, we are in a third phase of this history, where Jesus is not even a uniquely Christian figure: Hindus and Buddhists are as likely to appeal to the example and teaching of Jesus as Christians are. In the early centuries AD, the church came to the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was none other than God Incarnate. Americans have reversed that movement, so that Jesus is now everyone?s hero, whether or not they confess the creeds, believe the Bible, or are Christians.

Gibson?s film is far better than many American portraits of Jesus. One thing that the film gets exactly right is that Jesus came to suffer the punishment for sin that we deserved. The film begins with a quotation from Isaiah 53: ?By His stripes we are healed,?Eand it shows those stripes in gory detail. The critics who have denounced the violence in the film are like the Greeks of Paul?s day: For them, the cross is a stumbling block, an offense. But for us the cross with all its attendant violence displays the power and the wisdom and the grace of God.

The problem with the film is that it doesn?t show us a very full or complete Jesus. By this, I do not mean that the film violates the Second Commandment in some way. The Second Commandment forbids us to make ?any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.?E The commandment does not prohibit making images per se, since God commanded Israel to make images of cherubim among other things for the tabernacle and later the temple. God forbids making images and using them in worship, as a vehicle for homage or worship of God. The film does not violate the Second Commandment, either in making or in viewing.

By saying that the film does not give us a complete Jesus, I mean, like much of the popular American image of Jesus, it does not present Jesus as the kind of man that He was. Jesus was not some innocuous and harmless first-century hippy. As we?ve seen constantly in Luke?s gospel, He was a courageous opponent of the entrenched but corrupt Jewish powers; He was a shrewd debater, who regularly bested His opponents in public; He was a provocative man, who ripped up things in the temple and then declared, as we see in our sermon text this morning, that the temple ?Ethe central symbol and institution in Judaism ?Ewould be utterly destroyed.

This is the Jesus of the gospels, an unnerving, upsetting, frightening man who provoked both absolute devotion and murderous rage. But the really unnerving thing is that THIS man is God Incarnate; the really frightening thing is that God might be just as upsetting and challenging as Jesus. As the film puts Jesus on the front burner of public discussion, we should be looking for opportunities to introduce people to THIS Jesus and to THIS God.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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