Christ the True God vs. “The Passion of the Christ”

Stephen Pribble

Text: “And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen” (1 Jn. 5:20-21).

Here is one of the strongest statements in the word of God concerning the deity of Christ. The church has always taught that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh.

“I believe ... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, light of light, very God of very God; begotten not made, being one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made” (Nicene Creed).

Q. 21. Who is the redeemer of God’s elect?
A. The only redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism).

John has strong statements of the deity of Jesus Christ at both the beginning and end of his gospel (Jn. 1:1, 20:28), so we should not be surprised to find a strong statement of the deity of Christ at the end of his first epistle. Of this passage Calvin wrote:

The Apostle not only condemns idolatry, but commands us to beware of all images and idols; by which he intimates, that the worship of God cannot continue uncorrupted and pure whenever men begin to be in love with idols or images. For so innate in us is superstition, that the least occasion will infect us with its contagion.... There is a corruption of religion whenever a corporeal form is ascribed to God, or whenever statues and pictures form a part of his worship. Let us then remember that we ought carefully to continue in the spiritual worship of God, so as to banish far from us everything that may turn us aside to gross and carnal superstitions.

Sadly, in view of the present religious climate, this teaching cannot avoid being controversial in our day. God’s people need, more than ever, to have that teachable spirit commended in the word of God: “...the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated...” (Jas. 3:17).

Here is a topic that just will not go away. Repeatedly I am asked, “What is your opinion of the new Mel Gibson movie?” Produced by Mel Gibson, the movie “The Passion of the Christ” is a vivid depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s life, starring James Caviezel as Jesus.

“The Passion of the Christ” is not the only movie to depict Jesus the Son of God. Also showing in local theaters is the movie “The Gospel of John.” Then there is the 25-year-old “Jesus” film, which once ran in U.S. theaters but is now shown on mission fields all over the world. In the 70s there was the blasphemous musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is being pushed by a lot of local churches. Some churches in our area have been showing movie trailers at services and encouraging their people to go see the movie.

I received a catalog of outreach materials which may be used by churches. Ranging from a “neighborhood bundle” for $1,395 to a “regional bundle” for $3,295, these materials are billed as “Perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2000 years.”

I’m offended! “Perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2000 years”? What about the gospel? What does this say about the wisdom of God?

“For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.... God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence” (1 Cor. 1:21-29).

The preaching of the word of God is thought by many in our day to be passé. We live in a visual generation. People have short attention spans. A dramatic presentation is thought to be so much more powerful, having so much more impact. It is thought that people who would never darken the door of a church might be much more likely to walk into the friendly, familiar atmosphere of a movie theater. There they would hear not the shrill rantings of a preacher but the smooth, suave intonations of an actor or actress.

Yet the word of God stands: “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”

Has God changed? Has his word gone out of date? You will search the Scripture in vain for any mention of drama as an element of worship (or of evangelism, for that matter). As Paul put it, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God ” (Rom. 10:17).

The second commandment is the authoritative statement of the mind of God on this matter: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.... Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them...” (Ex. 20:4-5). The Heidelberg Catechism summarizes the teaching of the second commandment as follows:

96. Q. What does God require in the second commandment?
A. That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.

97. Q. May we, then, not make any image at all?
A. God neither can nor may be visibly represented in any way. As for creatures, though they may be visibly represented, yet God forbids us to make or have any likeness of them in order to worship them or serve God by them.

98. Q. But may not images be tolerated in the churches as books for the laity?
A. No; for we must not be wiser than God, who will not have his people taught by dumb images, but by the living preaching of his Word.

Zacharias Ursinus, the author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said, “Neither does faith come from the sight of images, but by the hearing of the word of God.” Amen!

What this world needs is more old-fashioned, Bible-based preaching. What this world needs is the gospel. What this world needs is Christ. Christ is the answer for every human need. Do you believe that? How sad that fewer and fewer churches are actually preaching Christ!

Oh, there’s movie clips, and skits, and applause, and crowd-pleasing stories. There’s silver-throated orators tugging on the heart-strings of human emotions. There’s Christian comedians cracking jokes. There’s lots of humanistic philosophy. There are men (and even women) in pulpits telling people how to live a happy life, how to have fulfillment in marriage, how to have a good sex life, how to raise the kids, how to succeed in business, how to get and keep friends. But where are the pulpits that are really dedicated to preaching Christ, that show that the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel are the answer to every human need, that show that our only hope for this life and the next is to have a relationship with Jesus Christ the Son of God, our hope of glory?

Satan is very deceptive. Our Savior called him “a liar, and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). He lied to our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the garden. He was so convincing that Adam and Eve, who were without sin or the slightest inclination to evil, fell for his deceptions and plunged the whole human race into sin. It is a lie of Satan that a movie might be a better instrument of conversion than the divinely-ordained preaching of the word of God.

But what kind of effect is the viewing of “The Passion of the Christ” likely to have on the viewer? Consider an example from marriage. A loving husband is to always be ravished with his wife’s love; her breasts are to satisfy him at all times (Prov. 5:19). If a husband is lusting in his heart for another woman while he is making love to his wife, he will cheat himself and his wife. The pleasure he might have experienced will be stripped out of his lovemaking.

That’s the trouble with promiscuity. If a person has had sex outside of marriage, then he will unconsciously always be comparing his spouse to someone else he might have been with. His lovemaking will be robbed of its joy. Satan is the great deceiver and also the great robber.

So it is with the Christian’s love-relationship with Jesus Christ. When the born-again believer hears the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, what he should be thinking about is the Christ of the Bible and not another. His mind should be so informed by the truth of God’s word that all idols are crowded out.

What I fear for any well-meaning Christian who sees “The Passion of the Christ” is that for months afterward his or her private devotions will be filled with images of James Caviezel playing Jesus rather than the actual Christ of Scripture.

Oh, saint of God, don’t cheat yourself! Don’t let yourself be robbed of the joy of sweet fellowship with him who is the true God and eternal life, the Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t let your private devotions—your special quiet time with your Savior—be robbed of the sweet communion with him who actually loved you and gave himself for you—rather than an actor who was paid a salary to play a character.

And don’t forget: Jesus of Nazareth was no ordinary character! He is none other than the second Person of the holy trinity, the eternal Son of God who became man, the one who was, and continues to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever. Jesus Christ is God in human flesh. He is unique; there is absolutely no one like him.

God’s word says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.... Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them...” (Ex. 20:4-5). We must not make or use any unwarranted images. The logic is simple: Don’t make pictures of God; Jesus Christ is God; therefore, don’t make pictures of Jesus Christ. It is unwarranted to make any kind of representation of Jesus Christ whatsoever. It is wrong to make a representation of any of the persons of the godhead.

Q. 109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?
The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it... (Westminster Larger Catechism).

Jesus Christ is the true God and eternal life, and we are to keep ourselves from idols. Follow the Christ of the Bible. And don’t let your thinking about Christ be distorted by any kind of man-made image, no matter how it is created.

One time the pastor of a large church was defending his church’s annual passion play. He wrote to me, “I always thought the command ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image’ had to do with graven or carved images. I never applied it to playacting.”

Yet the point of the second commandment is not to exclude only one type of humanly-devised depiction of God but to exclude them all. We are not to make images of God. Jesus Christ is God. We are not to make any kind of image or representation of Jesus Christ.

Some people try to justify pictures of Christ by arguing that there have been a lot of people saved through the use of them. This is a pragmatic argument. It has a lot of appeal. But it is not scriptural. God’s word says that it is through the foolishness of preaching that God saves people who believe. The reason he said that was not because movies had not been invented yet! To argue that way is to call into question the infinite wisdom of the living God, who teaches that our Lord Jesus Christ came “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4).

There is not a hint in the Bible that Almighty God erred in sending Jesus Christ in the first century, rather than the twenty-first. He came when telephones, and computers, and electronic typesetting, and cassette tapes, and CDs hadn’t been invented yet. Yet he came at the right time—the fullness of time.

Go to “The Passion of the Christ,” and public worship will seem so much less exciting, less thrilling. Christian worship certainly can’t compare to the emotional impact of theatrical lights and Dolby surround-sound. It calls you to think: “Come now, let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18). It calls you to use your mind. It calls for hard work and concentration.

Jesus is God in human flesh. That is the gospel. If it were not for that fact we would all be lost and on our way to hell. We are always to keep in mind the Christ of the Bible and are ever to avoid idolatry at all costs.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the true God and eternal life; therefore, we are to keep ourselves from idols—even well-intended idols. Don’t sin against God and against your own soul by going to see “The Passion of the Christ.”

Stephen Pribble is pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Lansing, Michigan | home