It seems nearly everyone’s been abuzz with The Passion of the Christ lately. Discussions on anti-Semitism, levels of violence, and Christian entertainment have never been so prevalent and so provocative. And I certainly find them interesting. However, I haven’t yet seen much analysis given to what is actually in the film as it exists. It seems a great deal of thought has gone into attacking the film on one hand, and a great deal of thought has gone into defending it on the other.
Yet, if it is art, then it should speak to us on both a critical and personal level. And it is the latter that seems to have gotten even less attention than the other aspects of the film—certainly much less attention than it deserves. While I was greatly moved by Gibson’s portrayal and I agree with the camps that believe it is not anti-Semitic and is not gratuitously violent, I want to know what people took away with them. I want to know what people learned.
I’ve been a Christian for most of my life. I feel as though I’ve always had a pretty good idea of what Christ endured for me on the Cross—and as a result, while the level of violence shown was disturbing, it wasn’t the shock that it may have been for others. I knew crucifixion was pretty bad. I’ve heard some pretty accurate descriptions over the years, and I have a decent imagination. So what may be surprising, and was surprising to me, is that I found some very powerful messages tucked away in The Passion that I’ve not yet heard really anyone give attention to. So this week, and over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a look at some of the powerful stories and messages beyond the controversy of the film. It’s time to dig a little deeper.
Peter and Judas
It’s amazing how much people seem to love to hate Judas. There’s no mistake about it: betraying the Christ is a serious sin. Having received thirty pieces of silver from the Jewish religious leaders, Judas led them to where Jesus and the disciples were in Gethsemane. And there he committed the act that Christ would chilling describe in the question, “Would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”
Yet one aspect of The Passion that I found myself appreciating was its honest portrayal of Judas. In The Passion and in the Gospels, Judas is never portrayed as a despicable, evil, dirt-of-the-earth, money-grubbing man. Yes, he did what he did for money, but it seems just as quickly Judas realized his mistake and tried to return it. We know the story now from beginning to end—but while it was happening; it seems likely that Judas was, in fact, a very conflicted individual. He may even have seen Christ as the Messiah, but perhaps made the same mistake that so many others did: expecting Him to become an earthly ruler. Some have even speculated that Judas’s intention in selling Christ out was to force Him in a position to have to act as that ruler, to use His power in that moment to overthrow the Romans.
Whatever the case, tragically, Judas would not live to see the true dawn of Christ’s kingdom, a kingdom of forgiven and renewed hearts. Far from being hateful, Judas appears to be full of sorrow and then makes his final mistake: he hangs himself.
On the other hand, we have Peter, a disciple that many Christians love to love. For so many his journey is a fascinating one to follow. He seems so humanly portrayed in the Gospels: not always very bright, but always a man of good intentions however misguided they might be. Indeed, if there is comic material to be found in the Gospels, some of the stories about Peter, James, and John with all their foibles are quite amusing. Somehow Peter always emerges as one whose boisterous nature always gets him in trouble, and yet also as one who is so easy to sympathize with. Maybe that’s because we see ourselves so much like him.
And on the night of Christ’s arrest, we find Peter at his lowest moment. I was very moved at how The Passion portrayed this moment between Peter and Jesus. It seems that few Gospel films seem to include the fact that at the moment the rooster crowed, Peter and Jesus did lock eyes for a moment. Can you imagine what Peter felt in that moment? Can you imagine what he felt all night? All the next day?
Peter had it rough, and every time I read his story in Scripture I find myself hurting for him. Jesus of course was God, but He was also a man. Peter’s denial had to be a major emotional blow. And for Peter, there’s no question that he experienced the greatest emotional distance between him and the Master the same night he had claimed he would go with Christ to the death.
But as much as Christians seem to despise Judas and love Peter, I would venture to say that the only significant factor separating the two was a decision. Because when I really begin thinking about Judas and Peter, it does strike me as strange how we can have so much contempt for the former and so much sympathy for the latter. I think if we’re honest about it, the actions of Judas and Peter aren’t all that dissimilar. At the core, both actions were a type of betrayal. When it really counted, both Peter and Judas failed to protect Christ. And afterward, both appear to realize their mistake and react in sorrow for their actions.
As much as some people hate Judas, when I get past the caricature and really think about him as the human being that he was, I find Judas’s story one of the most tragic. For while it was predicted that one would betray Christ and Judas fit the bill, there’s no prophecy and no prediction that the one who betrayed Christ had to have his life end so miserably and tragically alone. (Psalm 69:25 and 109:8 possibly indicate consequences, though neither passage mentions death, and neither specifically refers to the betrayal.) Some feel that Judas got his just deserts for his actions, and yet the same grace that is extended to us could also have been his.
And it is Peter who demonstrates this. For if we really consider the implications of his actions, his sin was no better than Judas’s, and no worse than any of the rest of the disciples’ desertion that night. Yet what set Peter apart was his decision to hold on—to hold on through the night. Judas’s sorrow led him to believe a lie, so he succumbed to the temptation of believing that he was beyond hope, and that was his greatest mistake. But Peter’s sorrow eventually led him to repentance and restoration.
Scripture paints this principle clearly in this way: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
No matter what it is that we may be facing in our lives, no matter how far we may have strayed from God or how deeply our sin may have hurt Him, it is never too late to respond with a sorrow that desires true restoration in God’s presence. Don’t believe the lie of the enemy; don’t believe it’s too late for you; don’t believe that life holds nothing beyond your sorrow. Like it did for Peter, let it lead you to God’s throne-room of mercy and grace, where restoration is waiting for you.
Hold on to His hope, for the long night will soon be over.