We have recently started our new preaching series called The Passion of Christ and a few people have asked me the meaning behind the name. For many people, this name conjures memories of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of The Christ that graphically depicted the final twelve hours of Jesus’ life before his death on the cross. Our series shares a similar name to this film, primarily because the final events of Jesus’ life on earth have traditionally been referred to as “His Passion”.
According to the Collins dictionary, this word “passion” today primarily has two meanings: (1) strong sexual feelings towards someone, and (2) a very strong feeling about something or a strong belief in something. The interesting thing though is that this word “passion” has evolved significantly in its meaning over time. Its etymology begins with the Latin word passio which means “to suffer”, so for approximately the first 1200 years after Christ’s death on the cross, this word simply meant “to suffer” or “undergo suffering”. By the 13th Century, this word began to evolve and take on the new meaning of “any strong emotion or zeal” and it wasn’t until the 16th Century when William Shakespeare wrote the play called the Titus Andronicus did the word begin to take on the meaning of sexual desire. Today, this word has evolved to the point where it has lost most of its meaning relating to suffering and predominantly refers to sexual desire or strong emotions or zeal. It is far more common today to say we are passionate about something such as fishing, cooking or sports, rather than to refer to suffering.
When we look at New Testament Scripture, though, we find that the word for “passion” is used over and over again to refer to Jesus’ suffering, specifically his final week of life on Earth leading up to the cross. This has commonly been referred to as his “Passion Week” or his “Holy Week”. Jesus himself referred to his “passion” many times in the lead up to the cross:
And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer (παθεῖν, pathein, “to suffer”) many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Luke 9:22)
For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. (Luke 17:24-25)
Even after his Resurrection, Jesus rebuked the two men on the road to Emmaus for their lack of belief, saying “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26)
The consequence of this is that when we refer to Christ’s Passion from a theological perspective, we are primarily referring to his final week of suffering, including the cross. Nevertheless, it needs to be recognised that there is another significant aspect of Christ’s “passion” which is more related to the modern meaning of the word, referring to his strong desire or zeal to die on the cross for our sins. Some people think that Jesus was just a victim of circumstance, that his death on the cross was simply the result of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Certainly, the Roman Empire of that time was ruthless and would depose of anyone that challenged the status quo of their system of government and rule. Without doubt, the Jews had a very precarious position within the Roman Empire. The Romans were suspicious of those who practiced minority religions, and by 150 AD one ancient historian estimates that the Romans had killed 580,000 Jews and many more were sold into slavery. So is that what happened to Jesus? Was he just a victim of the unethical Roman Empire that targeted and removed any person that threatened their rule? The answer that the Bible gives is an emphatic “No!”. Consider the following Scriptures:
Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer (Isaiah 53:10)
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
Peter explaining the meaning of the cross on the day of Pentecost: This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. (Acts 2:23)
If we are to take the Scriptures seriously, we need to come to terms with the reality that the cross was not a mistake and Jesus was not a victim. Yes he died “for our sins” to reconcile us to God, but at the very same time, it was God’s will for Jesus to suffer in order to redeem us. The powerful corollary to this is that Christ’s passion, using the modern meaning of the word (i.e. his strong desire), was always to do the will of his Father. Many times in the Gospels, particularly in the Gospel According to John, Jesus explains that he always perfectly does the Father’s will. One very clear example of this is found in John 8:28-29. When the Jews were challenging Jesus authority, he strikingly pointed to his relationship with his Father:
“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” (John 8:28-29)
Consequently, when we think of Christ’s Passion in traditional terms, we should be drawn to think of his suffering for our salvation, particularly his final week leading up to and including the cross. Yet in the more modern sense of the word, we may also think of Christ’s Passion in terms of his strong desire, or as we might say his strong passion, to do his Father’s will. That is perhaps the most supreme quality of Jesus’ life – he always did the Father’s will and always did it perfectly. He is the true Son of God, he is the true Israel! In this way, he persuasively demonstrates how we are to live as we allow God’s Spirit to transform us more and more into the image of Christ. We are called to live as Christ lived and perhaps the clearest and most compelling application of this is to live as obedient children of the Father, just as Christ did. In Luke 9:23, immediately after Jesus has told his disciples that he must suffer (lit. undergo his “passion”), he says these evocative words to his disciples:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
If you and I are going to be serious in following Jesus Christ and being his disciples in our lives today, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross daily. This is not a suggestion or a proposal, it is a command from the mouth of God himself. In fact, you could just as correctly translate Jesus’ words this way: “Unless you deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me, you are not my disciple”. The question remains then, how do we apply this teaching to our lives? Well, in short, we are not called to apply this literally and carry the same cross as Jesus. Only he was able and only he was worthy to carry that cross. Carrying our cross, therefore, means to be willing to do the Father’s will in our lives, whatever that might be. For Christ, that meant to suffer and die on the literal cross. For us, it means to do whatever the Father calls us to do with the gifts, talents, resources and opportunities he has given us. It may also involve suffering, but just like Jesus’ suffering, it will result in glory to God. The question that you and I need to consider and ponder is this – what has the Father called me to do with this life he has given me? Am I daily denying my own desires and choosing to follow his will for my life? Yes, that is the cost of being a disciple, but at the same time, the wonderful paradox is that in that cost we also find our greatest joy. Let me leave you with these words from the book of Hebrews – describing what it means to be people of faith who, just like Jesus Christ, do the Father’s will in their lives and in doing so that is where they find their greatest joy:
Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
May the Lord bless you as you ponder the greatness of our Lord and what it means to truly be his disciple.